Take my thesaurus...please
There's something to be said for the perfect word. Most writing simply doesn't stand out, and the perfect word does stand out. In a world where most things are simply good, the perfect word is superb, exceptional, marvelous and wonderful. So every writer should labor over every word to choose the perfect one, right?
Not so fast--there are plenty of good reasons not to use the perfect word. In fact, you might want to handle your thesaurus rarely and carefully, because the perfect word might keep you from connecting with your audience--here's why:
- Your audience may not understand your language: Your readers may understand that a magnanimous person is better than just a good person, but, then again, they may not. The perfect word loses its appeal if your readers have to open a separate tab on their computers to look up the meaning of the perfect word. It's extremely distracting to stop reading and start hunting for the meaning of a word that could have been expressed in a simpler way. In some cases, your mission to include as many perfect words as possible in your writing will anger your readers as they constantly try to decipher what you've written. Unfortunately, in many cases, you'll simply lose your readers as they give up and turn their attention to something much easier to read.
One of the most important things I've ever learned in writing is to never assume the reading ability of your audience. They may all be tenured professors or may all be factory workers. The former group may understand the perfect word, but both groups will surely understand the simpler word.
- Your audience may not speak your language: Our communications, just like our business, are no longer on a regional or a national level, but a global level. Whether you realize it or not, your language is constantly being translated into different languages and dialects. American writers are commonly mistaken to assume readers from all around the world understand English just as well as the authors. Some readers understand English on a basic level; some may not understand it at all and rely on translating software to decipher words written in English (and translating software is limited in ability and inconsistent in effectiveness).
Always keep in mind that your reader may not understand your language, and it is better to rely on simpler words that are easily understood than perfect words that may not translate as well.
- Your audience may not appreciate your tone: Writers like big words because they make us seem, well, big. Writers love to cleverly piece together big-shouldered, imposing words in overly-elaborate pieces to say to the reader, "I'm smart and you should respect me and my writing abilities." Some people look up to writers for writing this way. Some people think the writers are simply too proud and look down on them for writing this way. Simple words are humble, friendly and approachable; complex words can be brash, stuffy and abrasive.
Simple words seldom offend because they're used so often that we're not intimidated by them at all. Perfect words boast and preen--that can be a good thing or a bad thing depending on your point-of-view.
The perfect word is only the perfect word if your reader thinks it's the perfect word, too. The best writers clearly express ideas in a way that readers can precisely and easily understand them. There are times when you must find the perfect word to express a particular idea. But if you can find a simpler word to communicate that idea, you're more likely to appeal to a broader audience. Don't get rid of your thesaurus--simply put it out of your reach so you won't be tempted to often use it for finding the perfect word.
This post originally appeared on The Good Idea Exchange, a blog about leadership and self-improvement.