simple prose
Tweet about this on TwitterShare on FacebookShare on LinkedInPin on PinterestEmail this to someone
Articles

The Importance of Being Ernest: Keep It Simple, Writers

Let’s get to this week’s question, which comes to us from Miloslava in Prague (fine, it’s my co-worker Erin again):

thesaurus crimes - writers

Great question, Miloslava/Erin. Are you right? Well, it all depends on whom you ask. For instance, let’s say you were asking the King of Horror:

“Any word you have to hunt for in a thesaurus is the wrong word. There are no exceptions to this rule.”
― Stephen King

Jack doesn't need a thesaurus

Or the Father of American Literature:

“Don’t use a five-dollar word when a fifty-cent word will do.”
― Mark Twain

50 Cent, get it?

Or the Father of Medicine:

“The chief virtue that language can have is clearness, and nothing detracts from it so much as the use of unfamiliar words.”
― Hippocrates

A man true to his words

Or the King of the Beats:

“One day I will find the right words, and they will be simple.”
― Jack Kerouac

Say what?

Or, finally, if you’re asking Dear Megan:

“You got any Xanax?”

Kidding, I’m kidding. Before I weigh in, let’s take a look at one of the most famous literary feuds since writers first started talking smack. According to the OxfordWord blog, William Faulkner complained that Ernest Hemingway “had never been known to use a word that might send his reader to the dictionary.” A saucy Hemingway retorted, “Does he really think big emotions come from big words? He thinks I don’t know the ten-dollar words. I know them all right. But there are older and simpler and better words, and those are the ones I use.” Buuurn.

Oh snap, Faulkner!

OK, you get the point: Simple is better. This is especially true for content writers, bloggers and the rest of us who aren’t writing “A Rose for Emily.” Too many of us try to get all fancy with our word choice, saying things like:

  • Utilize instead of use
  • Accordingly instead of so
  • Facilitate instead of help
  • Commence instead of start
  • In close proximity instead of near

Good writing is simple, clear and concise. Choose the longer words only if your meaning is so specific that no other word will do. And know that will happen rarely.

Two more examples that came across my desk recently:

  • “Add the constant hustle and bustle of raising children, running errands, executing work-related duties”—executing work-related duties? Just say “working.” Please.
  • “Smartphone apps have radically changed the way consumers interact with retail”—interact with retail? Otherwise known as, “shopping,” right?

Writers use these five-dollar words and phrases, I believe, to sound important or knowledgeable—but they only come off sounding fluffy and, dare I say it, full of themselves. On top of that, the resulting content is confusing, because the reader must translate it into plain English while he or she reads.

Say it with me: Good writing is simple, clear and concise.
Not: Meritorious Written Communication Is Unembellished, Apparent and Breviloquent

Not convinced? Consider this study published in the journal Applied Cognitive Psychology, which found that using “big” words actually makes you sound less smart. As E.B. White said:

“No Xanax, but plenty of pain pills.”

No, no, no. He didn’t say that. White said, “Use the smallest word that does the job.” Good advice.

Got a question for me? Fire away in the comments section below.

Megan Krause

About Megan

Megan Krause is a mom, writer, editor and all-around swell gal with 15 years' experience in communication and marketing. She served as ClearVoice's managing editor for four of those years, helping brands create great content and managing the company blog. She's passionate about words, language, grammar, style and ice cream. Follow her on Twitter.

Join the Conversation

Subscribe to the ClearVoice newsletter
to get the best of our content delivered to your inbox.

OOPS! There were some errors in your submission. Please try again shortly.

You're in!

We heard you loud and clear. You will get a confirmation in your inbox soon.

Check Your Email Confirmation