Better Writing: Big words can be big trouble

Mar 25, 2014 | Better Writing

A Story about Fancy Words

“What’s going on, Wally? Did someone give you a vocabulary for Christmas?”

Everybody around the table in the NCO club laughed but me. I had just used the word “masticate” in a sentence and my buddies were letting me know just how stupid and pretentious that was.

I remembered that incident this morning when I read Elizabeth Bernstein’s Wall Street Journal article, “Big Words Are Fading, But Many People Still Love Them.” I didn’t learn my lesson right away.

The first book I ever wrote for money was aimed at first line supervisors in industrial plants. In my first draft I used the word, “expeditiously” in one of the early paragraphs. My editor, Jon, had the perfect solution.

He had me take the paragraph into a manufacturing plant, show it to a number of supervisors, and ask them what they thought after reading it. The results were sobering. “Pompous” was one of the milder terms. The phrase “college boy” was decked out in expletives.

I went back to my editor and told him I’d learned my lesson. I said I’d learned that when I used fancy words, people would think I was pretentious. Jon looked at me hard for a long moment.

“That’s not the most important lesson.”

The Important Lesson

Jon leaned back in his chair. “Did anyone comment on the paragraph, or just the word?”

The look on my face must have told him I got it. He leaned forward again.

“It’s not about you and how readers think about you. Your job in this book is to teach those people something that will help them. Anything that gets in the way of that is bad.”

That’s the big lesson. We write for a purpose. The purpose does not include being seen as a good writer or a smart person. Anything that gets in the way of that purpose is bad.

Two Ways to Make It Work

If you’re writing a book or a blog, your purpose is to get your message across. Anything that gets in the way of that is bad. Here are two things you can do to keep your writing from getting in the way of the meaning.

Read your piece out loud. If it’s clear when you read it aloud, it will probably be clear when it’s read silently.

Keep your score on the Flesch-Kincaid Readability scale at 50 or higher. That’s the standard Time magazine uses. It’s a good standard for most business writing

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