Thursday, April 04, 2019

Better Writing Boot Camp -- Session 4: Using Plain, Simple Words


This session we look at using ordinary, simple words in business writing. Somewhere early in their career, many business folks get in the habit of using formal words when they write. When I ask why, the most common response is that they learned writing is supposed to be more formal than speaking. Interestingly, they don’t seem to think about where that idea may have originated. It probably goes back to times when folks wrote on parchment or papyrus – or when they literally carved words into stone. But in the twenty-first century, the expectation that people use more formal language in writing is no longer true.

I also think business people use non-ordinary words out of insecurity and a misplaced belief they sound professional or authoritative. Others use formal language because their colleagues do and they think they must do so to fit in. Laziness is also involved. If you’ve picked up work-related vocabulary, it’s easier to go with the flow. Also, translating concepts and ideas into ordinary words can be time consuming. Why bother when no one else in your office does? Mindless acceptance of MS Word’s Spelling & Grammar recommendations can also cause introduction of overly formal word choices. For example, my version always suggests using “therefore” instead of “so”. That’s ridiculous.

Wonder if I’m talking to you? I am if you’ve ever written a client or colleague something like: “the meeting will commence at 10”. Commence? Would you tell your spouse that you daughter’s play date commences at 10? No – you’d say it starts at 10. Or, have you ever written something like this: “When queried, Arlene said I need to furnish the information on or before noon.” Queried? Furnish? On or before? Why not: “I asked Arlene and she said I must give her the information by noon.”

Or maybe you’ve written something like this in a business letter: “Pursuant to our discussion, please furnish us with the aggregate amount per annum that your team spent on securing assistance with payroll.” Why not: “As we discussed, please give us the total amount per year that your team spent for help with payroll.

Here are some words and phrases you can practice making plainer: elect, ameliorate, in the event, subsequent, prior, aggregate, implement, necessitate, sufficient, exhaustive, pursuant to, consensus. If you have trouble coming up with a plain alternative for a word, look up synonyms of the word. (I turn to merriam-webster.com for this kind of help all the time. Just look up the word and click on the “synonyms and antonyms” link.) 

Using ordinary words isn’t about dumbing down information. It’s about making information understandable to as wide an audience as possible. If that’s not a good enough reason to work at using plain language, there’s something in it for you too. You’ll find that translating concepts into ordinary words tests your understanding of what you’ve written.

In a future session we’ll focus on avoiding jargon – that’s an even trickier issue to deal with. But, you’ll be in better shape for that workout if you practice – and master – using plain words in your business writing.

© 2019 Good with Words

Tuesday, April 02, 2019