Why ‘big’ words are more trouble than they’re worth
Nov 11, 2015
My four years at Syracuse University were more fun than I can fully remember. Yet, for all the pranks, procrastination and parties that define my fraternity days in the late 1990s, one of my most vivid memories was forged elsewhere on campus.
It was in class. Go figure.
Communications Law — best known as “Com Law 505” — was the final course requirement in the Newhouse School’s broadcast journalism major. The dean of the school taught it.
It was in the dean’s demanding class that an auditorium of budding journalists learned a valuable lesson:
“Don’t use a ‘big’ word when a ‘little’ one will do,” the dean said sternly while returning the semester’s first graded papers.
Some advice just sticks. Those 11 words are burned on my brain. I constantly recited the dean’s mantra during my journalism days and still do now as a content writer.
This topic, I realize, can be touchy for some writers. Why should they have to “dumb down” their writing?
That line of thinking doesn’t make sense to me. There is some middle ground, of course. Avoiding lesser-used synonyms at all costs isn’t the answer. But more often than not, they aren’t necessary. Big words don’t make content brilliant.
In fact, big words can do more harm than good if they are misused. And even if they’re used correctly, what value do those words provide if they’re lost on your audience?
More than likely, the message suffers.
Quick story: Prior to landing at Centerline, I was assigned to edit a series of white papers written by freelancers. Several of them used a few too many big words.
One of those words, like the dean’s advice, I’ll forever remember: ameliorating.
I’m not ashamed to admit it: I looked up the definition. Quite a few words the authors chose led me back to Dictionary.com, too.
My point? I had a reason to continue reading. It was my job to edit the copy. Otherwise, I’d have been long gone, searching for content that spoke to me — in my language.
“So much for the chance to arm me with information, win my trust, and ultimately earn my business,” I thought while playing the role of a potential customer.
Quick story No. 2: My first sports editor hammered into my head a rule that responsible journalists apply in their reporting.
“When in doubt, leave it out.”
I’m convinced the rule applies to content marketing, too. Take a moment to think about whether certain words in your web copy, blog posts and video scripts may cause confusion — or lead readers to check out altogether. If there’s a chance, find a simpler way to say it.
The approach is arguably more important than ever. Remember: The Internet as we know it was in its infancy during my college days, cell phones were only slightly smaller than cinderblocks, and the closest thing to social media was the paperback book of Greek life composites.
But now, everyone has the ability to craft and share content in any number of ways. The web is a wonderful thing. And because it exists, you have the power to directly connect with your audience.
You can engage them. You can also alienate them. It’s your choice. You choose the words.
Smart writing isn’t about proving you’re part thesaurus. Smart writing is about making something easy to understand, enjoyable to read.
Save words like “ameliorating” for Scrabble.
Marc Thaler is a former journalist and broadcaster-turned-associate creative director. For 10+ years, he covered sports around New England—everything from Little League to the big leagues. Several years back, he joined a software company specializing in cloud-based IT security and management solutions, spent a few years creating content in its marketing department, and then made the switch to Centerline. Over the years, his writing has appeared on a range of recognizable dot-coms, including ESPN, SC Magazine and Marketing Profs.