A couple years ago, I attended a class on writing skills taught by John A. Wieland (Business/Professional Writing Skills). Mr. Wieland, who was named the IUPUI Outstanding Distinguished Associate Faculty Member in 2010, shared a wealth of tips and ideas. One stood out for me — short is often better.
He discussed how many conquerors of Britain changed the English language. The ruling class introduced its language and words as superior. Unfortunately, this persists today. He gave this example: the Anglo–Saxon word, “ask,” was replaced by the Latin word, “interrogate” and the French word, “question”. His point was to impress with ideas, not words, by using smaller words.
In George Orwell’s 1946 essay, “Politics and the English Language,” he wrote —
“Bad writers, and especially scientific, political, and sociological writers, are nearly always haunted by the notion that Latin or Greek words are grander than Saxon ones, and unnecessary words constantly gain ground from their Anglo-Saxon numbers.”
In a Copyblogger post, Dean Rieck said —
“Choose simple words. Write ‘use’ instead of ‘utilize,’ ‘near’ instead of ‘close proximity,’ ‘help’ instead of ‘facilitate,’ ‘for’ instead of ‘in the amount of,’ ‘start’ instead of ‘commence.’ Use longer words only if your meaning is so specific no other words will do.”
In H. W. Fowler’s, The King’s English, published in 1908, he used the following example of using unfamiliar words —
“Continual vigilance is imperative on the public to ensure… —Times. (We must be ever on the watch)”
The Hard Work of Simplification
I work at simplifying my content. I keep two dictionaries and a thesaurus at my side as I write and edit. I ask myself the following:
Is this the right word? Does the word say what I mean to say? Is there a simpler word? Does a simpler word say it as well? Try this — say the sentence out loud with the word, then, replace it with a simpler word. What sounds best? Which meaning is clearer?
Can the word(s) be omitted? Does the word add to the meaning, or does it just make it… wordy? Try this — read the sentence without the word. Does the meaning remain clear?
Why this word? If you’re not using the word solely for its meaning, it may be a poor choice. Try this — If you’re not using the word for its sound, jargon, or trying to impress, would you choose this word?
What does the word mean? Seriously, not only its common accepted definition, but all usages? Try this — Look up words you know and review the entire definition.
There is a place for big words. Sometimes, only one word defines what you wish to say. Also, in avoiding repetition, it may be better to use “large,” “great,” or “considerable,” instead of “big” repeatedly. Is simpler better? Should you use small words? When given the choice of two appropriate words, in a word… yes.