Are top academic and aid institutions getting away with bad writing?

June 6, 2017 8 By Duncan Green

Guest post from the ODI’s Caroline CassidyCaroline Cassidy

I almost choked on my porridge last week when I read about the World Bank’s chief economist Paul Romer being sidelined for wanting his team to communicate more clearly. I re-read the article to check I wasn’t missing something, but there it was: Romer had pushed his staff to write more clearly ‘asking for shorter emails and insisting that presentations get straight to point’. He also would not clear a final report if the frequency of ‘and’ exceeded 2.6%.

I’ve spent years working with academics, policy-makers and colleagues, trying to get them to think differently about communicating evidence.  The climate has improved significantly in that time: donors are tougher on their recipients; impact is on the tip of everyone’s tongues; and communications is widely recognised as being more than just dissemination.

Yet, it was only a few years ago that a study found that more than 30% of the World Bank’s pdf reports hadn’t been downloaded in five years. In 2015, a further study by Stanford University’s Literary Lab found that World Bank publications are in ‘another language’. (I should caveat that I read a beautifully written World Bank report the other week so it’s not always the case).

Why isn’t an influential and world famous institution like the World Bank producing well-communicated research? Why isn’t it leading as an example to others? Isn’t a key role of the World Bank to find sustainable solutions that reduce poverty and build shared prosperity in developing countries? Surely strong communications is a critical piece of that puzzle.

Plain EnglishMaybe World Bank staff feel protected from this broader drive to improve communications – after all, they have the reputation and status to get away with it. Writing imprecisely can feel like a safety net. In January, Romer published his internal piece on why good writing is so critical. In it he states that ‘the problem with vague writing is that it lets an author convey a false impression yet retain plausible deniability when someone tries to verify a claim’. Clear writing is a way to build trust with your audience; it’s the bedrock to getting people to listen to you. As Romer puts it ‘‘Writing is the bottleneck that holds back the rate of diffusion of ideas’.

Last month, thousands of scientists took to the streets globally to fight back against the rise of anti-evidence. These sort of news stories about academics rejecting communications just aren’t helping. With many governments becoming increasingly reluctant to finance development of poorer nations, surely it is more important than ever that researchers do as much as they can to bridge the gap between research, policy and the public. This includes making research less elitist and more accessible to policy-makers. I am not saying that researchers have to directly influence policy, but they do have to communicate their work clearly so that it can be useful to others.

There is simply no excuse anymore to bury our heads in the evidence sand or hope ‘post-truth’ politics will all blow away. And organisations like the World Bank should be leading the way. If it starts with reducing the number of times you use ‘and’ in a report, then so be it.

(The use of ‘and’ in this blog is 2.3% of total words – phew!)

George Orwell’s 6 rules for writing (from Politics and the English Language) Paul Romer’s key messages on writing
Never use a metaphor, simile or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print.Never use a long word where a short one will do.If it is possible to cut out a word, always cut it out.

Never use the passive where you can use the active.

Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent.

Break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous.

The quality of written prose should be higher in documents that will have many readers.Look at the first 7 or 8 words in a sentence. If you do not see a character as a subject and a verb as a specific action, you have a candidate for revision.Keep the use of ‘and’ to a minimum (below 2.6% of total words).

If an author devotes an extra hour to shortening and improving a text, this might save an additional minute for each reader. If there are even 100 readers. An extra hour of editing that saves 100 minutes of reading reduces the total time required for communication.


Caroline Cassidy is Strategic Communications Manager in ODI’s Research and Policy in Development (RAPID) team

Update: check out my LSE colleague Rajesh Venugopal’s excellent defence of difficult writing (on difficult issues) in comments