We recently had a lunch-and-learn session at Parthenon that focused on writing for the web. The big message was to write short, simple sentences free of marketing jargon. That’s advice that all of us in the editorial department live by with every story we put together, but it’s always good to get a gentle reminder to watch out for wordiness.
The session reminded me of one of my favorite research papers, “Consequences of Erudite Vernacular Utilized Irrespective of Necessity.” The cleverly titled study focused on how readers reacted to papers that used a lot of long words. Writers often choose big words — utilize rather than use, or regarding instead of about — in an attempt to sound more important, more intelligent. The researchers found that it has the exact opposite effect. Using a ten-dollar word where a ten-cent one will do makes the writer appear, well, dumb. As a side note, using a fancy-schmancy font also made readers deduct IQ points from the writer.
I know that when I work with new writers, the dependence on bigger words and jargon is most often an attempt to sound “writerly.” In one of my first editing jobs I worked on a movie review with a copy editor who knew all the rules of grammar and punctuation, but stiffened up when she had to put words on a blank screen. As she explained what she wanted to say, I told her to take her hands off the keyboard and look away from the screen. “Tell me about the movie,” I said. She did, and I responded. “Write that.” She did. It was perfect.
Writing is just like talking. If you try too hard to impress, that fear and desperation comes through, and you are often misunderstood. You’re smarter than that, right?