Tuesday, July 16, 2013

For the Love of Words

Words, words, words. Sometimes we use too many when we speak (and write) and sometimes we use too few. Do you use words that most people are unfamiliar with or do you speak and write with clarity and concision? Are you laconic or verbose?

If you’ve been reading my blog, you know that I love working with the English language. I have a passion for writing and I love playing word games like Scrabble and Boggle, and doing crosswords. I’ve even created my own word puzzle book called “Wordsynerd.” (see: Amazon.com)

Good writers know that one of the most important aspects of written communication is to get their message across in a clear and concise way. This means saying what they have to say with a few strong, meaningful words rather than running on with words that most people don’t understand and a message that is swallowed up in a quagmire of garble.

Consider this excerpt from a recent National Post article:

My experience, and the recent conduct of this organization, are redolent of the most frequently invoked failings of the working press: Its self-appointed leaders, in the CAJ [Canadian Association of Journalists] and otherwise, are morally bankrupt myth-makers, full of self-righteousness, endlessly attending workshops and conferences in which they ululate from the podium about rights, duties, and the perfectly informed society. This hypocrisy and claptrap dishonours the majority of working journalists who are, in fact, despite a frequent lack of thoroughness, relatively fair-minded men and women trying to do their jobs and report it as it is. Black, Conrad (2013, June 22). Journalism’s self-righteous myth-makers. National Post. Retrieved from http://fullcomment.nationalpost.com 

Did you get past the first sentence? Do you know what “ululate” means? I have nothing against the occasional abstract word that is thrown into a speech or an article and if I’m captured by the author’s style and content, I will take the time to find out what it means. Building our vocabulary keeps our minds sharp, but if a writer tries to impress me with big words and a lofty writing style, the opposite will be achieved. For me, one of the biggest faux-pas in writing is to look down on the reader with pompous, irreverent language. Anyone can dress up a piece of writing with clever words that they find in the dictionary or thesaurus, but will the reader be engaged? No matter how interesting the subject matter is, if it is drowned in literary clutter, the less compelling the message will be. Thank you, Conrad Black, for the example of how NOT to write.

I once wrote an article for a trade publication and the marketing director of the company rewrote it in a style that was convoluted and obscure, populating it with words that I would never use. I showed his article to three professional people and none of them had a clue what he was trying to say. When I showed them my article, they said it was straightforward and clear, and that they learned something from it. The marketing director’s revised article was published and I was embarrassed to have my name associated with it.

Here is another excerpt from an article written by a well-known Canadian journalist:

In the past few years, ADHD – attention deficit hyperactivity disorder – has become the go-to diagnosis for kids who can’t sit still in school. Today, almost every class includes some kid who’s on Ritalin, Adderall or another stimulant. These medications calm them down and improve their focus. But astonishingly, their long-term effects are largely unknown. We’ve been conducting a vast, uncontrolled experiment on our children, with no idea whether the benefits outweigh the costs. Wente, Margaret (2013, June 18). Does Ritalin really help? The Globe and Mail. Retrieved from http://www.theglobeandmail.com/commentary/does-ritalin-really-help/article12608922/

Clear, concise, and compelling - thank you, Margaret Wente. I don’t always agree with your point of view, but I read your articles because you engage me with your interesting topics and clear, concise language. One of the most important things I learned about writing through my various studies is that readers identify with people, not with abstractions.

So, when you are writing a letter, an essay, a memo, or even an email, I hope you’ll know which of the above examples to follow. And if you ever catch me using pompous or suffocating language, please let me know!