Are you a Hemingway or Faulkner? Dear Megan makes the case for trading your thesaurus for clear, simple and unembellished prose.
Let’s get to this week’s question, which comes to us from Miloslava in Prague (fine, it’s my co-worker Erin again):
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
Or the Father of American Literature:
“Don’t use a five-dollar word when a fifty-cent word will do.”
― Mark Twain
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.”
Or the King of the Beats:
“One day I will find the right words, and they will be simple.”
― Jack Kerouac
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.
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.