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To Grow Your Audience, Stop Using Big Words
Improve your writing, and your reach, by breaking this one pernicious habit
Some writers are naturally good with words. Others have to work at it. But each of us has a vocabulary that’s innate, that flows out naturally. These are the words and terms we know, the ones we don’t have to think about, the ones we use confidently. Were it to stop there!
Whether we know few words or many, there’s a tendency among us writers to be writerly, to get all fancy, to pull out big words now and then either to impress readers or perhaps just because it’s fun to play with them. Some writers just know too many words for their own good.
This can be a big problem, limiting your audience. The more words you know, the bigger the potential problem.
If you’re a professor, a scientist, a professional of some other sort, or you have a hobby or you live on the planet Earth, you might have a deep, rich vocabulary—at least in your area of interest or expertise. Your brain may be jam-packed with all sorts of words I’ve never heard before or that I only kinda know the meaning of. I’d very much appreciate if you keep them to yourself. So would a lot of readers you’re trying to reach. (And by “readers” I mean lay readers, the masses, people across the spectrum of education and experience that make up the audience outside your bubble of expertise.)
Big words and terms that readers have to look up are what I call stop words. As in stop reading.
When you use big words, at best you’ve forced a reader to do some work or skip over the meaning. At worst, you’ve made them feel stupid or uneducated. Either way, you have not endeared yourself to the dear reader.
Sure, if you write for The New Yorker, well… do you write for The New Yorker? If so, you can ignore a lot of what follows. If not, then take my advice to the bank (you can deposit it next to the fortune you’ve made in writing). Put this on a Post-it Note and stick it on your computer:
Nobody ever stopped reading a story because they understood all the words.
How I avoid big words
When I suggest reigning in big words I’m of course not talking about long but commonly understood words like information, incomprehensible or inconsequential. I’m talking about words that sound downright supercilious, making a writer seem haughty or hifalutin.
Now if you happen to be like me—and I don’t advise it—most of the words you know and understand fully are pretty simple and straightforward. Lots of them are even rather Lilliputian. (To put a really positive spin on it: My vocabulary is very Wordle-friendly.) I know a few big words, but they don’t often come to mind when I’m writing or talking. I used “mollify” in a conversation the other day, and it came naturally—didn’t miss a beat. And I was surprised. Because usually I have to conjure the big words—you know, the abstruse and inscrutable ones—and then look them up to make sure I’m using them correctly.
I’m a reasonably well-educated individual, college and a year overseas and I read books and all that. So if I have to look a word up, I gotta figure a few other people might have to look it up, too. I don’t wish to make people work that hard to read my stories.
I want readers to focus on the story, on the message and the meaning, not on the words. I want people to understand what I write. Fully understand.
So when I don’t know a word, don’t totally grasp its meaning and nuance, I don’t use it unless it’s integral to the story (like a science term, perhaps) or said eloquently by someone I’m quoting. In either case I’ll define it if I think readers might appreciate my doing so. I haven’t found this approach to be a problem yet. In 30-plus years of writing, no editor ever asked me to pump up a story with bigger words. No reader ever criticized my writing for all its small, common words. At least not that I’m aware of. They criticize plenty of other things, but not that.
Don’t get me wrong. People appreciate great writing, and great writing can include big words. Go be a great writer! Use your words! But great writing doesn’t come from simply stringing together fancy words or insider jargon that makes someone stumble or pause over your sesquipedalian prose. (Trust me, I’m using this word correctly. Look it up! But please don’t stop reading.)
A real example
Let me give you an actual example from a draft for an article aimed at lay readers, one of many such examples I run across while editing physicians, psychologists, scientists and other people with letters behind their names who need to know a lot of big words to do their jobs and write their academic papers, and who I’m mentoring on how to write more conversationally for a broader audience.
So I’m editing the draft, reading along, enjoying it—it’s informative, well-written—then my eyes bump right into “cognitive functioning.” The term isn’t particularly big, and most folks probably know what it means or can figure it out, but it’s a term we don’t hear every day, so in some of us, the eyes and the brain slow down a beat to digest it. No big deal. But then right after that I’m nearly derailed by “diagnostic criteria.” And then along comes “correlates.”
All great science words! Academic papers are full of words like these. But in writing for lay readers, each of these words and terms runs the risk of making the reader slow down or stop and think, and not in a good, efficacious-cogitation kind of way.
So how about some simple everyday replacements? A little rewriting was required by the writer of this actual story in my example, but all these potential stop words and terms were easily replaced with plain English:
Cognitive functioning = thinking skills (or brainpower)
Diagnostic criteria = signs, symptoms and tests that inform a diagnosis
Correlates = linked
Jargon can be useful, even necessary. But each bit of dangling jargon (the undefined variety) drives a little wedge between the “smart writer” and “dumb little ol’ me” (and by “me” I mean, literally, me—I am not an expert at anything, other than perhaps writing and editing, and that’s for you to decide).
OK, so maybe none of those words above were total stop words for the average reader. Let’s call them slow-down words.
But then—I’m still editing the same article, mind you—I slam smack into “inflammatory cytokines.” Now that’s a colossally big, unquestionably challenging, total stop word. Indubitably. Readers will bail if you don’t deliver that one properly. Readers are always looking for an excuse to bail.
To be clear, “inflammatory cytokines” absolutely belonged in this story. The writer’s job is to deliver it properly.
If you must use a complex, unfamiliar word or term, you’ve got to define it immediately, ideally in the same sentence, but no later than the next one. A great trick that’ll work sometimes and is even more effective: Define the word before you deliver it, like this:
There are these molecules that sometimes get released by your immune system and cause inflammation. Scientists call them inflammatory cytokines.
You just won the heart of a reader. You and the reader are on the same page, as it were, intellectually and vocabulary-wise. You are in cahoots. You are speaking the same language.
Putting all this to work in your writing
Whether your expertise is medicine, psychology, yoga, music or nutrition or whatever, you know words the rest of us do not, or that we might have only a vague sense of meaning-wise. These are the fancy words. The big words. The words that most people never use in conversation. In the most important book any writer will ever read—The Elements of Style—William Strunk and E.B. White put it this way:
“Avoid the elaborate, the pretentious, the coy, and the cute,” they write. “Do not be tempted by a twenty-dollar word when there is a ten-center handy, ready and able.”
So let’s agree that you know the definitions of at least a few words that at least a few other people don’t. Maybe you know a lot of big words. The thing to understand is that they will creep into your writing without you noticing. So here’s what you do:
When you edit your draft (and especially when you listen to it, because you do listen to it, right?) imagine an actual layperson you know (friend, colleague, relative — a real live human) who has no training in the stuff you’re an expert in. Whenever they’d be like, What?, stop and nix that word or term or define it or otherwise be kind to your readers.
One last thing. You might’ve noticed in some of the examples I substituted three or more small words to replace one or two big ones. Writers are often told they need to be concise, use only as many words as necessary. That’s true when any extra words are superfluous. But that logic, wrongly applied, can encourage the use of one big word nobody understands when three small words that we all understand would do the trick. Lean toward the option that most readers will grasp without having to think.
Full disclosure: You could have avoided reading this whole article and just skipped down to these parting words: Be conversational. Write the way you talk. Not the way you would talk at a professional conference honoring your work as a brain surgeon or a rocket scientist or the best guitar repairist in the Bronx. Write the way you would talk to some drunk bloke at a football game should he ask you to explain this thing you know so much about. Write like that and nobody will stop reading your articles because they understand you.
This week’s Quick Tip: If only writers would get only this right
Fun fact that’s been lost to the dustbin of good grammar: Water does not only spend 15 minutes in the stomach. It does a lot of other things. It rinses dishes, falls as rain and even causes rivers to flow. But water spends only 15 minutes in the stomach. Read that again if you don’t get it.
“The road to hell is paved with adverbs.”