Use Real Words

A couple of years ago during an all-out brother war at our house — a war in which both boys had contributed their fair share of the strife — I was trying to broker peace by explaining the role each had played.

“He hit me,” one said.

“Yes, but you provoked him,” I replied.

“What does ‘provoked’ mean?” he shot back.

“Yeah, good point,” I thought.

There ought to be a manual for writers like me that explains basic parenting principles in everyday-kid-speak. Let’s just say that if I had a nickel for every time I asked one of the boys to do something and he said, “Sure, if I knew what that meant,” our change jar would be a heck of a lot fuller.

Here’s how I see it. If a large, multisyllabic word with just the right connotation would work, why use a simpler one. Right? Is it just me, or do you think like this too? Maybe it’s an occupational hazard for writers.

But just because we know the biggest, baddest words there are doesn’t mean we should drench every paragraph with them. The same is true of technical, archaic, jargonny, slang, or “Frankenwords.” Basically, we should “write for real people, using real words,” Ann Handley advises in Everybody Writes.

Of course we’ve talked about the difficulty in knowing who those “real people” are. And maybe they like words like “multisyllabic” and “connotation.” That’s what I’m banking on in this post. Or what if the article you’re writing is for a technical magazine? If you can’t use jargon, you probably can’t even write it.

But don’t choose any words just because you feel you should. And especially don’t choose words just because you’re trying to sound like someone else, even if you’re a business writer, and all the emails, newsletters, and white papers you’ve ever read had a lot of corporate buzzwords or what Handley calls “Weblish” (words sprouted from technology).

“Better writing comes from that place of goodness,” Handley writes. “It means using the right words, choosing real words, and avoiding the temptation of buzzwords.”

When I was a young journalist, just out of college and working for the daily newspaper in my hometown, on more than one occasion a friend or acquaintance would come up to me and say, “I love reading your articles. They’re just so easy to read, like you’re just talking to me.”

At the time, I was offended. I wanted to sound smart and educated. I wanted my work to have an air of importance.

But what I ended up with was readability. And as a writer still working at the craft 23 years later, I think I got what I really wanted.

everybody writes cover

For the next few weeks, I’m writing my Resources for Writers based on principles from Ann Handley’s Everybody Writes: Your Go-To Guide to Creating Ridiculously Good Content. If you’d like to read along with me, pick up a copy of Ann’s book at your local library or bookstore. Or, if you’d like to support what I do here, order a copy using my Amazon affiliate link.


Charity Singleton Craig

Charity Singleton Craig is a writer, author, and speaker, helping readers grow in their faith and experience true hope in the middle of life’s joys and sorrows. She is the author of My Year in Words: what I learned from choosing one word a week for one year and coauthor of On Being a Writer: 12 Simple Habits for a Writing Life That Lasts.

  • reply Nancy Clark ,

    Your comments about using words that fit the audience are right on. But I can’t help looking at the broader picture too. In my many years of teaching college English classes, one point of frustration was always with students who claimed they did not understand a reading passage or the instructions for an assignment. When I dug deeper into why, it was often because they didn’t understand the meaning of a key word and never thought to look up its meaning. The question is, then, how much responsibility is on the reader to learn new words in order to increase understanding?

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