“The great enemy of clear language is insincerity. When there is a gap between one’s real and one’s declared aims, one turns as it were instinctively to long words and exhausted idioms, like a cuttlefish spurting out ink.” George Orwell
I love words. I love the shape of the individual letters. I love finding out where they come from. And I love the way you can string a series of those letters – or sounds – together and create something that someone else can understand. From the baseness 'f&!k' to the celestial 'syzygy', I'm in awe of the sheer range of expressions and ideas we can communicate. Language will always be a thing of beauty to me. But I also know that language is used in other ways. It can be a tool to forge - and force - identity, to include those who understand and, by extension, to exclude those who don't. And that's why today's blog post is a call for everyone to use the words that mean the thing they're trying to say. To make clarity your friend.
I've always been focused on communicating clearly, although I didn't really make a conscious decision about it until I was told, during the viva for my DPhil in Renaissance Literature, that my writing was not 'dense' enough to be truly academic. Being told your words are basic could be taken as an insult, and it definitely led to some reflection. But I soon made the decision that, if I was going to write for a job, then I'd do it in ways that other people could understand, no matter what their background. And I've tried to be guided by that whenever I put pen to paper, or fingers to keys.
Whether it's a strategic plan, a report for a Board, a blog post or a story, if your readers have to work hard to unpack the meaning, then you've missed the point – and, potentially, an opportunity. The whole reason for writing is to communicate ideas. Maybe I'm just lazy, but I find it much more interesting if I can spend time reflecting on those ideas and formulating my own, rather than having to think about what each word means in that context. For me, that means three things:
Keeping it short
I don't think I have a fear of long words – ironically the phobia is called 'Hippopotomonstrosesquippedaliophobia' (try saying that after a few drinks) – but I definitely try to steer well clear of anything that's not easy to read and understand. And it's not only the length of words that you should keep an eye on. Sentences that ramble on, or paragraphs that cover pages, are really tricky for people to follow. So, mix it up. If you do need a long sentence or paragraph, make sure you have at least as many short ones. Use punctuation to help your reader know where to take a breath. And don't write 20 pages when 5 would do just as well. It's not about the quantity, people – focus on the quality! Just because you know all the words doesn't mean you have to use them.
Writing for the masses
Writing for your audience is really important, but I think we need to take a step back and take a different view of who that audience might be. I've recently been reading a lot of research impact case studies, written by academics largely for academic audiences. It's meant a lot of long words and sentences and a lot of head scratching on my part. But I think it's also missing an opportunity. Research impact, by definition, is the change that research has made in the world beyond academia. So, how do people who aren't trained in academic language access that research? The same goes for any sector or industry that uses highly technical language or relies on jargon. Making your writing accessible to people from all backgrounds - educational, cultural, religious, etc. - can only be a good thing.
Crafting your story
Finally, I'm putting out a plea for you to be more creative and think about the story you're telling. That goes for whether you're describing a piece of world-leading research, giving an update to your manager on progress with a particular task, writing a guide on project management, or simply sharing your thoughts in a post. Let's use the amazing tools that language gives us to write with a bit more flair. Make your narrative flow so its not just a series of bullet points. Be informal. Why not add a picture or two?! (That's an interrobang, another fantastic word describing the ? and ! together!) There might even be a place for an emoji or two. Whatever you do, take time to craft your words into something that really sparks the interest of your reader.
If you love words, follow Susie Dent on Twitter @susie_dent. She shares some very informative words every day to add to your vocabulary!
I love the traditional letterpresses, and had a wonderful day out at New North Press in London. See their amazing work online at http://new-north-press.co.uk/.
The very best thing you can do for your writing is to read, be curious and ask questions! So pick a book off the shelf or read some online articles. Our reading list might help.