Should wordsmiths imbue compositions with dexterous and verbose adroitness? Or should writers use short, simple phrases?
I often come up against amateur writers, particular in business, who insist writing should be a demonstration of language skill. Long words are used where short ones would suffice. Complex sentence structures threaten to entwine the reader in dense and impenetrable grammatical nightmares.
Whether on the company website, internal emails or customer correspondence, overdone writing can be extremely damaging to a business. Yet it is still commonplace. But overeager managers are not alone. Amateur novelists, homespun poets and pretentious bloggers can all produce wince-inducingly bad writing when they try too hard to impress.
When I argue for simplicity of language and structure, I often receive the same arguments in return. Here, I shall try to rebut them all.
1. The words exist – why not use them?
The English language is often considered the most verbose of all languages, with multiple words for almost every concept. Whereas other languages have limited word use, we have a Thesaurus-full of alternate words, both short and long – for every situation.
But is that really necessary? Sure, it is nice to be able to choose from a number of words to find just the right cadence or subtlety, but in most daily writing this is entirely unnecessary. Why say ‘expenditure’ when you can say ‘cost’? Why use ‘saturated’ when you can use ‘wet’? Of course, context is important and there will be times when it is more appropriate to use ‘saturated’ or ‘expenditure’. But the idea that a longer or more archaic word is preferable over short, simple language is just plain wrong.
Many of these words are less commonly used purely because they are redundant; replaced by simpler, more economical words. Words are falling out of usage every year, to be eventually culled from the Oxford English Dictionary through lack of use.
2. Short words are less desirable or interesting
To many, it seems crude to select words based on length, but copywriters do this every day. We have to. There is only so much space and ink available on a postcard or banner headline to convey the information. This means a four letter word is far preferable to a five letter one, even if the longer word seems more interesting. As long as meaning is not compromised, the shorter word will always win.
Language will continue to evolve to fit the way in which we use it. Technology has placed new limitations on word counts and character counts, further favouring the short over the long. Twitter is a perfect example, where everyone is forced to write within a 140 character framework. No room for fanciful extravagance there.
3. I shouldn’t have to dumb things down for people who can’t understand
But what is the goal of your writing? Writing is about communication. If the reader cannot understand your message, that isn’t their fault but yours. Understanding that there is a wide breadth of education and literacy levels is important if you want to attract a wide readership.
Assuming a higher level of literacy may be fine when writing poetry or the great Australian novel, but if you are writing emails or putting together some marketing material, a confused reader is a big fat FAIL.
4. We need to preserve the language
Something tells me English is not in any trouble. There are still many avenues where flowery, beautifully constructed language has a place. There are times when long words and intricate constructions can be incredibly powerful – poetry, high literature, artistic endeavour. But the majority of daily writing does not fall into these categories. A blog post or email doesn’t need flowery language any more than my telephone should be made out of gold.
The language is perfectly safe. All those words and phrases and wonderful stylistic tricks exist and continue to thrive in genres that support them. Keep them out of office communications, reports, marketing and instruction manuals. It isn’t clever.
5. Long words and sentences are more professional
Professionalism is about getting the job done. Does an email to office staff that confuses instructions sound professional to you? Does a letter to a client appear more professional if the client understands the information and acts upon it?
The legal industry has been plagued with criticisms of legalese for centuries. They are masters of obfuscating meaning behind unwieldy prose and dense, impenetrable verbosity. Legal documents frequently flaunt all stylistic laws of language. Yet, far too often, business writing attempts to emulate legalese in the mistaken attempt to sound ‘professional’. Don’t. Just don’t.
6. Long words and complex writing demonstrate a higher intelligence
Yes, often big words are used as a form of egotistical boasting on the part of the writer. “I know what that means – how clever and educated do I look”. What it actually says is that the writer cares more about appearing clever than conveying the message. Good writing is invisible. The moment a reader is jolted out of the message to interpret a word or reread a sentence to understand it, the writer has failed.
If you want to convey intelligence through writing, use simple words and short sentences to convey intelligent messages and ideas. That is a far greater sign of intelligence, instead of masking otherwise clever ideas with poorly chosen phrases.
Often, those who feel a requirement to write to such a high level are more prone to huge gaffs and mistakes. Attempting to write long words and complex grammar can backfire if you aren’t a professional. I have frequently had to edit and resend emails sent to me by management to clean up what they considered impressive and professional writing.
Writing well is not like riding a bike. Just because you know how to read and write does not mean you are as skilled as Hemingway. Attempting to overcomplicate your writing in order to appear clever is mere pretension and should be avoided at all times.
Clear Writing is Simple Writing
Regular readers of this blog will have heard me reference George Orwell’s Politics and the English Language before, but his six rules for clear writing bear repeating here.
- (i) Never use a metaphor, simile, or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print.
- (ii) Never use a long word where a short one will do.
- (iii) If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out.
- (iv) Never use the passive where you can use the active.
- (v) Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word, or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent.
- (vi) Break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous.
Writing is one activity where simplicity is far, far cleverer than complexity. Resist pretension, avoid verbosity and keep it simple, stupid!