Do you sound smarter when you use big words?
According to a study published in Applied Cognitive Psychology, the answer is no.
In fact, complex writing makes you sound small-minded. Just consider the title of the study: Consequences of erudite vernacular utilized irrespective of necessity: problems with using long words needlessly.
Wouldn’t it be better to title this study something like The effect of using big words when you don’t need them?
To sound smart, you must stop trying to sound smart. Brilliant writing is simple writing, a relevant idea delivered clearly and directly.
Here are 11 ways you can start writing today and sound brilliant:
1. Have something to say
This makes writing easier and faster. When you have nothing to say, you are forced to write sentences that sound meaningful but deliver nothing.
Read widely. Take notes. Choose your subjects wisely. Then share the information with readers, in your own writing voice.
2. Be specific
Consider two sentences:
- I grow lots of flowers in my back yard.
- I grow 34 varieties of flowers in my back yard, including pink coneflowers, purple asters, yellow daylilies, Shasta daisies, and climbing clematis.
Which is more interesting in a writing introduction? Which helps you see my back yard?
3. 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.
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4. Write short sentences
You should keep sentences short for the same reason you keep paragraphs short: they’re easier to read and understand.
Each sentence should have one simple thought. More than that creates complexity and invites confusion.
5. Use the active voice
In English, readers prefer the SVO sentence sequence: Subject, Verb, Object. This is the active voice.
Passive sentences bore people.
When you reverse the active sequence, you have the OVS or passive sequence: Object, Verb, Subject.
People are bored by passive sentences.
You can’t always use the active voice, but most writers should use it more often.
6. Keep paragraphs short
Look at any newspaper and notice the short paragraphs.
That’s done to make reading easier, because our brains take in information better when it’s broken into small chunks.
In academic writing, each paragraph develops one idea and often includes many sentences. But in casual, everyday writing, the style is less formal and paragraphs may be as short as a single sentence or even a single word.
7. Eliminate fluff words
Qualifying words, such as very, little, and rather, add nothing to your meaning and suck the life out of your sentences.
It is very important to basically avoid fluff words because they are rather empty and sometimes a little distracting.
Mark Twain suggested that you should “Substitute damn every time you’re inclined to write very; your editor will delete it and the writing will be just as it should be.”
8. Don’t ramble
Rambling is a big problem for many writers. Not as big as some other problems, such as affordable health insurance or the Middle East, which has been a problem for many decades because of disputes over territory. Speaking of which, the word “territory” has an interesting word origin from terra, meaning earth.
But the point is, don’t ramble.
9. Don’t be redundant or repeat yourself
Also, don’t keep writing the same thing over and over and over. In other words, say something once rather than several times. Because when you repeat yourself or keep writing the same thing, your readers go to sleep.
10. Don’t over write
This is a symptom of having too little to say or too much ego.
Put your reader first. Put yourself in the background. Focus on the message.
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11. Edit ruthlessly
Shorten, delete, and rewrite anything that does not add to the meaning. It’s okay to write in a casual style, but don’t inject extra words without good reason.
To make this easier, break your writing into three steps:
- Write the entire text.
- Set your text aside for a few hours or days.
- Return to your text fresh and edit.
None of us can ever be perfect writers, and no one expects us to be. However, we can all improve our style and sound smarter by following these tips and writing naturally.
40 quick writing tips to help you start today
Looking for more quick writing tips? These 40 pointers will help you organize and express your thoughts.
- Stop overthinking.
- Jot down one idea at a time.
- Write a little bit every day.
- Read something interesting if you’re feeling stuck.
- Make notes in your phone.
- Keep a pen and pad of paper with you when you’re away from your computer.
- Transfer your notes to your computer regularly.
- Pause conversations to capture interesting anecdotes.
- Add interesting anecdotes to conversations.
- Monitor how people react.
- Research fascinating topics.
- Brainstorm the best way to approach a topic.
- Look for fresh angles.
- Listen to a podcast related to your topic.
- Watch a video related to your topic.
- Discover the time of day when you’re most creative.
- Schedule time to write at your desk.
- Clean your desk.
- Know your audience.
- Practice choosing the right words.
- Outline your main points.
- Experiment with how you structure your writing.
- Draft many headlines.
- Craft intriguing subheadlines.
- Use effective bullet points.
- Study other authors.
- Create a messy draft.
- Take a break before you edit.
- Refine your messy draft.
- Edit with your ideal reader in mind.
- Choose simple language.
- Clarify any confusing phrases.
- Keep your explanations concise.
- Go into more detail only when it’s necessary.
- Entertain your reader.
- Share an unpopular opinion.
- Inspire new ideas.
- Transform written articles into other forms of content.
- Prompt your reader to take notes on your content.
- Motivate your reader to share your content.
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Because when you get the exact right information, you can immediately begin to up your game as a content writer. And that’s what’s going to get you the results you want.
The written word drives the web. It always has, and it always will.
Even if you’re working with audio or video, the right words are still what make the difference.
- Words drive engagement.
- Words drive customer experience.
- Words drive sales, growth, and profit.
And if you want to master the art of using words to drive business results, you’ve come to the perfect place — Copyblogger has helped accelerate the careers of writers just like you since 2006.
Reader Comments (181)
I think one big word is good, people that use many risk alienating readers. I enjoy articles that have one big word that fits perfectly. It makes me feel the article was worthwhile (I learned something), no matter what.
Andrew @ Blogging Guide says
At school, I loved maths/science and hated English. My writing was bad. I felt stupid because all the other kids used long words.
Then a few years ago, a good friend of mine, who is a confidence coach, simply told me I was much better understood by others because I used plain and simple words…. none of these pompous long words.
It took someone else to point out my simple writing strength.
Jef Menguin says
Friends usually praise me for using simple words in my writing. They said they wanted to learn how to do it. So, they asked me to teach them.
I told them that my writing vocabulary is very limited. I have no other choice but to use simple words. Those are the only words I know.
Raul Sim says
After all, everything is about simplicity.
Less is more!
Dave (MisterGoodGuy) says
Some writers seem to use ‘rambling’ for comic effect and it seems to work quite well for them – but perhaps it only works for those with an established audience who have come to expect it??
I confess that I fall foul of most of the tips above. 🙁
Bill Canaday, 2011 says
Basically rambling only “works” when the intent is humor. It distracts us from an initial point, sometimes returning us there via a circuitous route, sometimes dropping us off at the head of a totally new pathway. Handled with care, it can leave the reader saying ‘hmph’ to himself as he grins at being cleverly tricked. Handled poorly, it can be accompanied by the sound of a book being slammed shut and tossed into the fire.
I ramble far too much. Not because I have nothing to say or am pretentious, but because I have ADD and that’s the way my brain works. I think that I get more ideas on paper faster than most people, but I think it likely that I spend more time editing in order to get decent copy, too.
I ramble a ton, and like Bill it’s not to be egotistical or for filler (typically), it’s just that is how I’ve always written. I actually do write with a personal style, but part of my personal style IS my rambling. However, perhaps that should be my next “elimination round” for re-writing since I get less than 50 VIEWS… not visits, not subscribers, but VIEWS a day. My HIGHEST has been 75 VIEWS in a day. No subscribers.
The more I read about other people’s blogs, the more envious I get.
But, I will also say that I’ve been too heavy handed on the “good grammar” aspect of using 4-6 sentence paragraphs, instead of limiting my paragraphs to a just a few sentences if that was all that was necessary.
There I go rambling again. =P
Kiesha @ We Blog Better says
I hope this post goes viral today – these tips are what strong writers do every day. Saying more with less is the best kind of writing. I think that’s why enjoy blog writing because the whole point is to say as much as you can in the smallest space.
What good are big words if they don’t add clarity?
Josh Garcia says
Thanks for putting this list together. Now, I must apply it!
Information like this is priceless!
Chat with you later…
I think you just succeeded in every single one of these tips.
Ana YourNetBiz System says
Love Mark Twain’s quote.
By the way, could “brilliant” be considered a fluff word in some context? 🙂
This is very useful advice. I find your posts almost always help me. Thank you!
Chris Baumli says
Damn fine article… Mark Twain would be proud!
Willie Hewes says
I think the title of that study is really clever, though. How often are the titles of studies funny, while also clearly illustrating the point of the study? Full points!
I know it’s widely accepted writing tips gospel, but I’m still unconvinced by the “passive voice must be avoided!” rule of writing. See, when I was taught English (as a foreign language), I was told, “in English, the passive voice is used very often so you will have to learn how to use it.” I did, like a good little student, only to be told later in life I should stop!
Did the last paragraph really bore you that much? (Did you even notice?) Is the active form really always better? Where did this anti-passive sentiment start?
I realise you may not have the answers, but I’ve long wondered, so if you do, fill me in!
Jef Menguin says
Passive voice has its own place. It is very useful when you are describing a process or when the doer of the action is not as important as the result.
I love the big words. Love them. But I tend not to write them so much as I would speak them, so it’s not a problem in my blogging.
Just two days ago I was reading Ray Bradbury’s Zen and the Art of Writing and a maxim jumped right out at me: “…when you write quickly, you write honestly.” I love that. It’s both true and useful. And to follow along with today’s point, when you write quickly, you can’t stuff your writing full of multi-syllabic nonsense someone else can’t easily decipher.
Jon-Mikel Bailey says
These are brilliant tips! Anyone of our clients writing copy for their site could benefit from this. Thanks!
Interesting. I’m translator, and when we speak about these online writing news and challenges of the unknown, it seems that both languages coincide. The same principles apply to my native language (Spanish).
I’m ready to read the next 11 tips!
Steinar Knutsen says
Great advice. I find audio transcription a useful technique to avoid unnatural language, thus my writing comes across more conversational. A great iPhone app for this is Dragon Dictation.
Great tips! As a psychologist I know of the big words–and they do bore me! Even though I understand the words, I skim over much of them to get to the point. Which might be a the 12th tip here: Get to the point and be done with it!
Shane Arthur says
If for nothing else, avoid the passive voice since politicians use it to get around tough questions. 🙂
Politicians know “it’s easy to leave the actor out of passive sentences… to avoid mentioning who is responsible for certain actions.”
Willie Hewes says
I’m a civil servant. I know all about leaving the actor out of sentences, but does that mean the active voice is always better? Is the problem the voice, or the avoidance?
It’s perfectly possible to avoid identifying the actor when writing in the active voice. I did it just now.
Politicians also use soap. Should I stop?
Joshua Black | Underdog Millionaire says
There is only a small handful of people that have their clocks wound through big words.
The rest of our customers just want to hear us speak in everyday language. When I write copy I like to pretend that I am writing a letter to my grandmother. If she would get what I’m saying then I know it worked.
Great post. Very concise and packed with valuable tidbits.
The Underdog Millionaire
It’s great how you made your point both in words and in this blog. Nice job!
Shane Arthur says
@willie. I’m no active voice extremist, but active rules!
“politicians also use soap. Should I stop?”
Didn’t you mean, “The soap was used by the politicians. Should I be stopped by that?” 😉
Andrew Billmann says
Thank you, Dean. I’ve been reading your stuff for 15 years or more (a yellowed torn-out page from an old DM News confirms this), and you’re always right on. Too many writers, I think, begin with the goal of impressing their audiences. The real goal is communication.
Chung Bey Luen says
I always keep in mind that I should write simple words and short sentences when I’m writing.
Sonia Simone says
@willie, passive voice isn’t always a bad thing. But in general, I agree with Shane & Dean, active voice is clearer and it always identify who or what is doing the action of the sentence.
Too often, passive voice is used to keep from getting clear about what’s actually going on. The classic example being “mistakes were made.” Well ok, that’s helpful in one sense, but it would be good to know who made them.
The reason so many writing teachers recommend reworking passive to active is it’s a quick way to make your writing simpler and more direct. I like the way Dean framed it, rather than saying “it’s always wrong.”
Excellent and immediately useful tips. Novice blogger.
Benjamin Stevens says
Nice post. I see a conflict between #2 and #4. In example #2, you take a sentence and make a paragraph out of it.
In #4, you advise shorter sentences.
I think the example in #2 would have worked better if you had found a way to use several short sentences to flesh out the description.
I’m a nit picker.
Minnie Gupta says
Benjie, I beg to disagree, there is no conflict. Adjectives and adverbs are two different things. He advises against using “unnecessary” words and keep it to the point, not do away with subject matter altogether.
Jon Tremain says
Probably one of my biggest downfalls is being a little too stiff in my writing style. I appreciate your tips Dean. I think we all know many of these things. I’ll be very good at my writing for day, then start to get carried away and back into bad habits. Nice refresher.
Bob Scotney says
“Sesquipedalian” means the use of especially big or long words. You should assiduously eschew obfuscatory prolixity and hyperverbosity.
Steve Benedict says
Your post was very good, Dean. A nice, clean, spare writing style is something to be envied. I go in spurts. When I organize myself and clear my head, I do well. My thoughts flow and I lose myself in my writing. I glance at the clock and realize I’ve been writing and editing the same piece for 2 hours. I feel good about the end result.
Then, the next day, things may go all to heck in a handcart. I allow the tyranny of the urgent to take over and find myself racing to get things done. My work suffers, my desk gets more cluttered and I get so scattered I don’t do anything particularly well.
That’s when I pull back and decide to let my writing take a breather, while I catch up on other things. I don’t allow myself to turn out garbage. When I’m back to the right place in my head, I start writing again.
Thanks for the reminders and the little insights.
James Frey says
To take a page from Hemingway… good post! Time to drink.
You are singing my song. I read so much tangled writing every day that my eyes hurt.
Sonia Simone says
@Bob, thanks for the reminder about a word I happen to love!
@James, laughing, thanks.
Josh Hanagarne says
As a grammar lover, librarian, Mark Twain fan, and nit-picker, I love everything about the post.
I recently learned that there is now an opera based on Strunk’s The Elements of Style, for anyone who just can’t get through the book:)
Shane Arthur says
ps. Active voice cuts down on word count, too. At 8 cents per word, that can add up with the proofer.
Willie Hewes says
OK, well, I’m not trying to start the passive voice appreciation society here (although I do think it’s been unneccesarily hated on by some).
And, yes, the passive voice can be and is used to obfuscate. Sometimes, though, who is doing the obfuscating (for example) is either unimportant or really obvious (here it’s clearly the aforementioned soap-using politicians). (The bastards.)
I guess my main issue with “avoid the passive voice” as writing advice is that for many of us, determining whether a sentence is in active or passive voice is a non-trivial task. It is a non-trivial task to me, and I’m *good* at grammar.
Instead of spending time working out whether each of your sentences is active or passive, is it not more efficient to hunt for things that are unclear, or wordy, or that sound like a civil servant wrote it?
Shannon O | Confessions of a Loving Wife says
Great tips to keep in mind, especially number 4 – I am Queen of the never ending sentence.
Kathleen Inglis says
I think these are all very useful tips – thanks for sharing. The advice on short sentences, paragraphs and not writing too much are something I think would make a lot of blogs a lot better and are sins I often fall foul of myself (I am a chronic over-writer).
Josh, is that opera real? I’m the kind of word geek who’d go and see it!
I’ll definitely apply these tips. Thanks for posting it! More power! (^_^)
Shane Arthur says
@Willie, it only takes a few seconds to erase passive.
In your word processor, do a search for any form of “to be” (ex. “is, are, am, was, were, has been, have been, had been, will be, can be, should be, would be.”). If verbs follow these words, it’s probably passive voice.
To establish niche authority, we need to write with authority. And, yes, you’re making me laugh (Josh, too).
Margo Kipps says
Passive voice is to be avoided because many extra syllables are added for it to be accomplished.
Avoid passive voice, which adds many extra syllables. (43% difference)
As for the big words and complex sentence issues– while thesauritis and inelegant subordination can lead to obsfucation, we have 800,000 words to choose from and complex ideas to convey. Simple sentences cannot express complex, subtle relationships. The world of ideas should not be limited to a 4th grade reading level.
Shawna R. B. Atteberry says
Great article. I noticed I’m doing a couple of these things. I need to stop.
Another thing to add to Edit Ruthlessly: read your copy out loud. One of the quickest ways to catch all the points that come before 11.
Great blogging advice! Ban the fluff, for sure. Be concise. Be simple if/when possible. And *usually* brevity is helpful too, but rambling from time to time CAN be just what the meandering flâneur needs… 😉
Mike McCready says
This is right in line with the lessons from a business writing course I’m taking. What’s interesting is that I didn’t realize that I was adding fluff words, cliches, etc. until after I took the course. I now find myself auto-correcting my writing more.
Your tips are simple, but so valuable. I think more of us need these tips than we realize.
Thanks for sharing.
Leadership Coach says
I do wish that Dean had a career in politics. It would be so good to hear less hot air and more truth from those who are supposed to govern us.
Suzanne Vara says
Love this as so many of us are guilty of these at one point or another. I am not a fan of the big words as it do not find them to be very conversational. I do not necessarily talk in big words so why would I write that way is sort of my model for writing. For me it is not necessarily about looking smarter or not, it is about how I talk and transferring that over to how I write.
These tips are ones to remember esp when we do start to ramble – resists the inviting temptation.
Chris Mower says
I’ve always been a believer in these suggestions. Always remembering to use them is another question…
Eunus Hosen says
“Is passive voice must have to be avoided?” I think it shouldn’t, because it is the smartest way to keep long your article without adding some extra information.
Jason Eichacker says
I disagree with #3. I think some well-placed “big words” beg the reader to grow instead of “talking down.” As mdb wrote in the first reply, it may ask them to learn something new. Maybe I write to stir people differently, as I’m sure personal style creates its own parameters. I feel it’s most important to string words together in your own voice.
Of course, I’ve yet to really go out and develop an audience. I may adapt my view when that time comes.
David 'Bear' Stanford says
Ken Siew says
I got a kick out of this: Mark Twain suggested that you should “Substitute ‘damn’ every time you’re inclined to write ‘very’; your editor will delete it and the writing will be just as it should be.”
It’s damn good! [Edited: It’s good; hmm it doesn’t sound as good as it seems. This is the case where you gotta keep the ‘damn’! Of course it’s not professional, but you don’t have to be.]
One side thought: Although many Copyblogger posts are driving home the same messages, repetition is crucial in making the messages stick. Everytime I read a new post, I get some new ideas to work on. This always happens even if I’d already seen the tips/advices tens of times.
Jason Eichacker says
After further consideration, I think the picture you’re trying to paint is the guiding principle.
You can say something “takes hard work” or be more descriptive and refer to “inglorious and unglamorous toil.”
Again, it comes down to style. Just a second though to share.
Mike Paul says
Great list of tips to keep us all focused. For those of us that had to write huge papers in high school and college, writing so that most people can understand and enjoy does not come naturally.
We’ve been taught that you have to use flowery language and write above people’s heads.
Do that online and you’ll have a bunch of bored readers. Keep things short, interesting and to the point.
Love this! Your first point is great. Have something worthwhile to say. When you do have meaning behind your words, it’s easy to write simply and specifically. You know your point. You get it across. Job well done.
Ben Griffiths says
My favorite: “Shorten, delete, and rewrite anything that does not add to the meaning. It’s okay to write in a casual style, but don’t inject extra words without good reason.”
I’m guilty of many of these, especially #s 5 and 7. But a bigger issue for me is trying to balance writing for attorneys with good blogging. I can see how #3 makes sense for content in general, but most of my clients prefer “commence” and similar words in legal docs. I guess it means I must juggle 2 writing styles to blog well and satisfy my clients. Thanks for the tips, timely as always!
Great list 🙂
I am very new in the field of writing and I feel your post directly pointed out to me the areas I need to work on.
Thank you for sharing those strategies 🙂
Kristina Allen says
I’ve been thinking about this post all day. Every time I sat down to write something, I double checked to be sure I wasn’t using any $100 words. It’s unlikely that I would, but as a graduate student I have added a few “academic” terms to my vocabulary. I would hate for them to slip in to everyday conversation! 🙂
Peter Padilla says
Great stuff. Short and sweet. Thank you.
Fred @ Signed Jerseys says
Great tips Dean. I’ll keep an eye on my “very, little and rather” etc. I think I’m guilty. I’ve never given much thought to the active vs passive voicing before either. Thanks for posting.
Brian Satterlee says
It is sometimes hard not to use big words to describe something… It can be quicker and more precise to use technical jargon and fancy words but you do have to get your message across to your reader, who may not have the depth of your vocabulary. Personally, I don’t know many big words… I think wordy is better than verbose anyway, which is what I am becoming here…
Mike Korner says
@Dean – Thanks for the article, and especially the damn fine Mark Twain quote. I love it.
@WillieHewes – My gripe with passive voice is that it usually hurts clarity. I agree that “determining whether a sentence is in active or passive voice is a non-trivial task”, so I let Microsoft Word help. I swear that its grammar checker draws immense pleasure from harassing me about passive voice. I gripe, but my rewrite is usually much clearer. Maybe your word processing software has a similar torture-the-writer option. Word doesn’t have an option to flag writing that sounds-like-a-civil-servant-wrote-it though. Maybe in the next version 🙂
Fantastic tips. It’s essential to strike a balance between writing detailed, specific points and eliminating grandiose phrasing.
Chris Birk says
Amen, Dean. Excellent post.
Kat Eden says
There’s nothing worse than trying to eke out a post when you have nothing to say! I’ve been guilty of it several times, but my new technique is to plan out (bullet point) all my drafts on a Monday, then they simmer away in my mind and I fill in the gaps later in the week. It’s saving me a lot of time actually.
Lucy Smith says
I think that everyone who writes should read Stephen King’s ‘On Writing’, even if you’re not a fiction writer. He covers a lot of these tips, actually. I don’t necessarily agree with everything he says, like cutting all your adverbs (a well-placed one can be handy), but since I read it I can see where I’m going wrong and fix it – and see how much better it is afterwards.
Siita Rivas says
Thanks Dean, your words have ignited a spark of responses hungry for simplified expression. Me too as I struggle to find ways to describe the way something looks.. as in a product that effects a great look expressed as ‘gorgeous..’
Any thoughts as to expression of tired words so people don’t switch off ?
Its an awesome article. I have been struggling to write these simple words and explain correctly. Now, I have some idea and hopefully I will use on my website. I have been writing a website on Nepal with lots of helpful informations. If you guys could help me how to simplify my writing visiting my website that would be awesome.
Richard Scott says
Holy crap! Love the tips, but I am not reading all these comments. lol. I would be here for hours, and I’m sure I would run across a few redundant things.
I love number 7. Eliminate the fluff. Cut it out. Chop it up. Anything that can help us keep it simple, make it more readable and get our message across is a good lesson to learn. Damn good!
Erika Barbosa says
Love the Mark Twain quote!
Simplicity is key.
Anna Olcese says
Thanks for the great post! K.I.S.S. when you communicate.
Arijit Das says
These Tips are very unique and easy to learn …. I like it, Thanks for sharing!! 🙂
Willie Hewes says
“Word doesn’t have an option to flag writing that sounds-like-a-civil-servant-wrote-it though. Maybe in the next version.”
They should totally build that. I might even use the programme if they did.
I will never be able to write ‘very’ again without thinking about Mark Twain.
One of the other advantages of the Write – Wait – Edit approach is that you will discover words that have been left out and should be there to complete a sentence.
The missing words are in your head when you write the article and when you review it right after writing. The missing words are no longer in your head when you come back later to review and edit the article.
Leaving the text and coming back later is a trick that I swear by. I also read text out loud to spot errors.
Mark Twain cracks me up.
Nate Balcom says
Good writing tips here. I do have a tendency of getting a little long winded some times. How do you like Thesis? I’m considering purchasing.
John Paul Aguiar says
Luv 1 – 8 and 10
I guess having something to write SHOULD be your first step..lol
Hilary Walker says
Thanks for firmly reminding me about what I know but tend to ignore!
Especially timely as I write monthly blogs and website articles for clients, as well as myself. This will help me give them better value.
Faiz Suberi says
Excellent post Dean. The idea is to welcome readers and let them know that we are just as ordinary as any other person. This keeps the readers coming back as having simple English laid out enables more understanding, instantly encouraging him/her to ENGAGE with the writer; which is important.
Mike Botvinik says
This is an interesting study. However, this seems to be stating the obvious. Overusing complex terminology and vague adjectives definitely alienates the average reader. Technical vernacular is appropriate for trade journals and other professional publication but vague adjectives always make the writer seem less credible. I am a journalism student at the University of Kansas and these are the types writing guideline that were drilled into our brains during the first research and writing class we were required to take. All these guidelines are basic AP and inverted pyramid news writing styles. Nevertheless, it is nice to see one scientific field provide legitimacy to the practices of another.
Chad Goehring says
I agree. Using complicated words only makes you sound like you’re trying to be smart as apposed to actually being smart. Got a chuckle out of “See?”
Sheri Wallace says
Thanks for this article. I really need it today, and I have it bookmarked. Awesome tips.
Agreed! I feel the most inspired and creative when I’m taking simple ideas and turning them into fresh, exciting, new insight. It’s the same with words. It’s how you use them together and develop the relationship between them. In a vaccum, words mean nothing. Delicately crafted, they’re powerful tools.
Alison Clayton-Smith says
I consider myself to be a reasonably intelligent and articulate person. But when I read academic articles and journals I typically find them full of words that seem designed to confuse. So a really useful application of these basic rules would be in academic papers. Encourage understanding rather than show how clever you are.
By the way, love the site.
Samantha Milner says
These are some very good tips. Especially #1 “Having Something To Say.” Because without this it’s a waste of time for you and your readers.
Sandeep Vadgama says
Thank for the tips, there are many people like me who are not the best at writing but we still want to express ourselves.
To writers these are already embedded in them, but for those who aren’t, it is always great to see read them to start the process of having them naturally enforced in our writing.
Simple, concise, brilliant.
I am going to print this and hang it by my computer to serve as a reminder.
An important trick I see some great writers use is rhythm. They use words like a paint brush and are able make something boring or difficult easier to read. I compare to a photograph of an ugly person wearing a nice shirt.
Farnoosh ~ Prolific Living says
Simply brilliant. A good reference would be “On Writing Well”, an excellent book which covers many of these topics in such simplicity that you wonder why you didn’t remember them from high school or grammar school …. (did they ever teach us that stuff?) Thank you!
Esther @Add a Spoonful of Sugar says
Reading this was so refreshing…Thanks for the great content. I’m going to print it and keep it handy it was so good!
Well, I think it’s pretty clear from the subtitle of the study that the main title was a joke…
And while a “conversational” style of copy is more effective in general, I think how far to go with that is dependent on the site that you are writing for. If I’m writing copy for a VoTech, I do not want to go overly verbose, but sounding like I’m a teenager texting my friends does not work either. And while I suppose it is ultimately true that you have to take into account smaller and smaller vocabularies, sometimes it is just easier and more efficient to use a “big word”.
I try to use the simplest word that exactly fits the situation. Sometimes a ‘larger’, less familiar word is the correct match. “Dumbing down” is not the correct approach for everything.
If I were describing a General speaking to the Senate, at first I would have him use military gobbledygook to try to BS the Senators (a pre-emptive counter-strike against the counter-insurgents*, for instance). Then, when the bull stuff hit the PhD (Piled Higher & Deeper) levels, I’d have the Senators interrupt him for a definition in layman terms. The General might not even know the layman terms … so he/she would have to fumble in the simple-words backpack for something that might be useful.
Finally, the Senators might choose to express their frustration and say something to the effect of “General, let’s cut to the chase … when you aim the damned thing and pull the trigger, what in the hell is supposed to happen next?”
Is there a simpler term for “gobbledygook”? Definitely … but you’d have to string a bunch of those simpler terms together to express the same thought and that would NOT simplify either the writing or the reading.
There is concision in precision.
Use a large word when it suits the purpose better than a short word or a brief phrase. Use the larger word when it will be understood by your audience at least as readily as-a-bunch-of-small-words-piled-up-in-a-three-high-traffic-accident-just-before-the-full-stop.
Just my 2 cents worth.
*attacking the lawful government
Kamal Hasa says
Well I agree with this: Nobody can be perfect writers.
As time passes by we become aware of the mistakes what we do commonly and try to correct it to improvise ourselves.
The word fat is a perfectly good one, but when it is hijacked by neo-puritans, with the implication that slimness equates to virtue, we are on dangerous ground.
Tutor Phil says
I endorse this completely. This stuff is what I teach my essay writing students. I wonder if all these are applicable to writing marketing copy.
Arun Kumar says
Brilliant tips! These impart a lot of confidence into people like me, who would want to try a hand at writing a blog.
Sunny Suman says
I love to write……simple.
Earlier I used to feel I wasn’t good at writing for I couldn’t remember long words, however much I had tried. Really, I had given a lot to digest long dictionary word so that I could also write ‘good’. Somewhere inside I always hated looking into the dictionary while reading books. And that was probably the reason why I could never remember long words.
When I started with content writing job, I realized that: at least on the web, nobody is going to sit with a dictionary to understand my text. I only use longer synonyms of any simple word when the word itself has been already used. I, as a reader also, want to read and understand a sentence in an instant…. and want to build up a similar content for all readers……so now I love writing SIMPLE…..
The way to read a sentence “in an instant” … ANY sentence … is to build up your vocabulary and grammar. The way to do that is to read material that is challenging: not material with all the life sucked out of it by the “keep it simple” police.
The way to limit your audience to those who can barely drool is to continually accommodate the least literate of them. As we have seen on the internet, that bar continually gets lower and lower. It’s a race to the bottom. All you have to do is find a line of fools, blow a whistle to get their attention, then walk away, dropping marshmallows behind you. In the end, your readers will not be able to understand you (in ANY language) and you will not be able to find simple enough words to actually communicate anything beyond “New!”, “Improved!”.
Don’t go there. Don’t lower your own command of the language and don’t talk down to your readers. Yes, you will gain the less literate … but it will come at the expense of the more literate (who generally have more disposable income).
Look at the ads for luxury automobiles. They generally have a few VERY well chosen words. They aren’t afraid of tossing in foreign terms or using unusual typefaces (which, I assure you, were as thoroughly tested as the words themselves).
You will not become a better writer by abandoning your craft and aiming for the bottom of the pile. You become a better writer by mastering your craft and aiming at any part of the pile you choose.
The tips above strike a chord. I love to read anything that neatly describes what I already believe, but failed to put into words myself.
All these rules basically work together – if you use one, often times, the rest will follow. For example, if you work on 4. “keeping it short,” you will also avoid 7-10, avoiding rambling, fluff, redundancy, and over writing. I agree that big words are not always best, but I’m not sure how I feel about steering clear of ‘longer’ words. Sometimes, I think “utilize” is an appropriate replacement for use. Use can sound bland whereas utilize, if you ask me, falls under step 2 of being specific – utilize paints a more descriptive image for the reader.
Other than that, I think these 11 tips are simple and completely on target. It’s hard to disappoint when you follow guidelines as point-blank and directional as these. And better yet, they apply to all forms or writing: blogs, memos, letters, documents, anything.
The ‘complex’ title that you described made me chuckle, and effectively got the point across. I have always struggled with keeping my writing concise and clear. Your post offers some great advice to students like me who are looking for ways to work on their writing. Thanks for these tips. I always try to remember to cut out ‘fat’ around my message – excess words that do not really add to the sentence. It’s painful at first, but I can notice the improvement after. Remembering these tips can really help writers stand out, as you have described. Thanks again!
Maureen Dudley (maureendudley on Twitter) says
These tips go right along with our firm’s motto: “Speak clearly, if you speak at all; carve every word before you let it fall.” — Oliver Wendell Holmes.
Thanks for the reminder.
Maureen Dudley of Dudley & Nunez Communications
Frankie Cooper says
Amazing tips that will give readers a more entertaining copy to read.
Nate Balcom says
Good tips. Now if I could just get my clients to read this and follow your advice. Keep it simple and edit, edit, edit. Well written. Thanks for the post!
Even though I know a lot of this stuff intuitively, I feel it’s really helpful to see it listed so clearly. This is a great article.
The overwriting part is helpful. I really like this blog. Excuse me I d@#$mn like this blog.
Charlyne Chu says
I was taught English as a second language. And now I’m excising my writing skills working as an copywriter. These tips are really helpful. 🙂
That’s a great list. A useful read for anybody who wishes to write well!
I am agree with all of your views. As non-native speaker, we sometimes tend to use some complex, unusual and metaphoric words to make our writing (so-called) standard…But simplicity is the most powerful way in every step of our life…
A must-read post…
I’ve added a couple counter-points to earlier comments. Now I’d like to suggest a #12. Shoot it down if you can.
Of those portions of the world who speak English, many of them speak it only as a second tongue, a language of necessity. It has to do with English speaking people having money and guns and a willingness to use one whenever the other fails to achieve the desired results. Those who read your material in their native language will bring a sense of gratitude and pride to the reading. This can result in sales that would have otherwise been missed.
So, here’s the proposed rule:
Even if you also post in English, do not neglect to post in your native tongue.
Chris | MarketingHQ says
I’ve always found that less is often more. Simple words, short sentences will keep the readers coming back. These are great tips 🙂
Janet Peischel says
Keep it short. It’s much harder to write a little than a lot. Editing may be harder than writing. Read my blog, The Pragmatic Marketer for insights and tips.
Excellent tips to be mindful of. Sometimes I tend to write sentences too long. I can see the gist of writing small sentences. Choice.
I find your advice useful. The article itself followed the rules you outlined. Good articles don’t need to take forever to read.
Micheal Allen says
Some fantastic tips in this article especially the passive voice , this is a mistake I always make in writing ,Thank you for sharing.
Amazing article, and the Tips are just so juicy and easy to understand.
Thank You very much!
Mary Baum says
Fun fact of the day: ‘utilize’ doesn’t even mean ‘use.’ It means to use in a novel way. If you put cereal in a bowl, you’re not utilizing it. If you put the bowl on your head to use as a guide for cutting hair, you’re probably also not utilizing it – lots of people have done that before. If you put the bowl on your head and then dangle a chain from your ear and pretend to be a lamp, while someone takes a picture, maybe then you’re utilizing the bowl.
So – 90% of the time, if you’re using the word ‘utilize,’ you probably shouldn’t be.
Also – notice the single quotes around the words? Double quotes are for quotations, not emphasis. And, yeah, bold would be better still. Oh, gee! Look at the time!
I feel better now. 🙂
I think it all depends on context, though. IMHO, big words can make you seem smarter, if you slip them in amidst a bunch of smaller ones. It’s overkill that murders your prose. Not the use of big words.
Anyway, thanks for this great article. Brevity is not my strong point. I like long sentences. A lot. I have to resist the urge to use them quite often. I fail more often than not, however, and that’s why I must humbly thank you for this perfect article on the subject. Maybe this time the advice will go to heart.
Have a great day, and happy writing!
Simplicity is complicated.
A great post………… important thing is to apply it!
Rightly said all well put together,Great post.
This was overall a very informative article, but I must disagree with you over the title of that study you cited. I believe the authors were using a little tongue-in-cheek humor to further emphasize what they found in their study – I’m surprised you didn’t pick up on that.
I should have read this before I started writing and blogging. Now i know exactly what to do and forget about high sounding words that always make me freak out before I even go half way of my articles. I thought and many people think too that using big words is the way to effective writing. Thank you for a very informative article that writers could use to improve their writing.
Sanjay Nair says
I have always used simple words in my copy. But at times you risk being labelled as someone with a limited vocabulary. Cannot help but use some big words to make the seemingly mundane copy better.
Tash Hughes says
My argument has always been that even if you can understand all those big words, do you want to wade through them? Especially if you’re working to understand the message itself or follow some instructions. Simple writing is easiest to read and distracts less from the message so it’s great to see these tips available for people wanting to improve their writing.
Jonathan Scott Griffin says
Okay, time for a difference of opinion. I don’t agree with this article one-hundred percent. While it’s true that there are good books that are straight to the point, what’s wrong with novels with big words and loads of description? I ask you all to truly think about this. You say we should all use smaller words, less complex words. Well then, why even have those big words in the dictionary if no one uses them? We might as well make our dictionaries simpler if our vocabularies are going to be so. But in the process, I feel, something terrible happens, our lives become a little less rich. So what if novel makes use of big words? Reading words I’m unfamiliar with has done no harm to me, but encouraged me to look through a dictionary to find their meanings. This in turn has enlivened my vocabulary and made my life all the more richer and fulfilling. We should have the intelligence to learn new words, the mental comprehension to do so.
Next issue I have with this article, the need to always write short sentences and never to ramble. Again, why? Some of the greatest literature is incredibly wordy. Let’s take a look at Moby Dick. It rambles on and on. Some people hate, I admit it. But I found the book to be thought-provoking in it’s wordiness. The same goes for Great Expectations. These books, though wordy, allow to really reflect inner-thoughts in a way I have found very meaningful. Books with loads of description, like Lord of the Rings, with tons of sentences, going into detail descriptions on the lands alone, allow me immerse myself in the fantasy land that Tolkien has created, something I find fantasy books with shorter descriptions have not allowed me to do so. There is a poetry to some of these long-winded novels, a beauty.
As I said before, straight to the point novels with little description and smaller words are not bad novels. They can be very good novels. But wanting every novel to be written like that smacks of something the fast food generation wants, something called instant gratification. They want results now, they want their food now. Sometimes I wonder if there is a correlation to the fast food generation to people wanting their novels always simple and straight to the point. To say that novels should only be written one way, which this article seems to be saying, is a disservice to literature and it’s many diverse writers. I ask you all to think it over.
Sonia Simone says
Fair enough, Jonathan, except the article isn’t about writing novels — it’s about writing content in service to a business.
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