Keep Your Audience Close, and Your Words Simple

Remember the essays you wrote for your college English classes? The ones where you used intricate sentence structures and million-dollar words to impress your professor and solidify that “A”?

Yeah…about those:

That only works in the classroom. It simply won’t do in the real world. 

Ditch Your Thesaurus

In grade school and college, your thesaurus was your ticket to “wowing” your teacher. A so-called “beautiful word” would stop your junior high English teacher in her tracks as she circled it and wrote “Great word choice!” in the margin. Even if the content of your paper was completely void of meaning, you’d at least get some points for your artistic ability.

This isn’t academia. Nobody’s grading your writing on your ability to string together beautiful sentences with multisyllabic words you looked up just to sound smarter. You might have fooled your professor with your “way with words,” but others will see right through you.

Or, they won’t see you at all. Use too many million-dollar words, and you’ll lose your audience completely. Chances are, someone out there is saying exactly what you’re saying, but they’re making it much easier for their audience to understand.

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“While I disagree with everything you’ve written, I love your choice of words. What a great article!” – No one ever)

Think Like Your Audience

I have some good news:

You already know how to change your writing style depending on your audience. You proved that in college when you included words like “ubiquitous” and “capricious” in your essays, despite having never actually used those words in your life before.

Now for the bad news: Your professor is no longer your only audience member.

Your potential audience now numbers in the hundreds, thousands, or (possibly one day) millions.

Okay, so that’s not exactly bad news. It’s intimidating, but it’s definitely not a bad thing.

So how do you connect with potentially thousands of different people at the same time? It’s actually pretty simple:

Think like an audience member.

What do you want to see when you click on an article? Do you want to have to stop and look up a bunch of words you don’t know? Do you want to have to wade through long-winded sentences to decipher just what the heck a person’s going on about?

Unless you’re some sort of masochist, the answer is “no.”

The members of your audience can be caprici–fickle. They can be fickle. And – admit it – you can be too, at times. Ever click a link on your Facebook page that you thought would interest you, only to immediately get that “TL;DR” feeling once you see a gigantic wall of text?

We live in a world of instant gratification. We want our information, and we want it now. We don’t want to have to waste time weaving through some narcissistic writer’s “masterful prose” to get to his point.

You hate when you run into that guy on the interwebz. Don’t be that guy on the interwebz.

Be More Efficient

So maybe it’s a tall task to break the habit of writing academically. I know it was for me – and I still struggle with it.

But the good part about this is that by focusing less on sounding smart by using million-dollar words, you’ll have more time and energy to focus on actually providing value. And that’s really all your audience cares about.

As a writer, which would you rather do: Waste countless thinking of synonyms and extended metaphors, or spend time churning out quality content that gets your point across in a clear, concise manner?

When It’s Okay to Be Fancy

Before I let you go, I want to make sure you don’t leave thinking it’s never okay to use those English 101-approved masterpieces. There’s a time and place for everything, after all.

  • Use a complex word if it’s necessary. If the simple version of your word doesn’t do justice to what you’re trying to say, go for it.

Good Example: “Michael Jackson obtained the rights to the Beatles’ songs.” (“Got the rights” just doesn’t work in this situation, even though “obtained” is a fancy way of saying “got”)

Bad Example: “I obtained a candy bar from the store.” No, fancypants. You got  a candy bar from the store.

  • Use a complex word if it was the first word you thought of. Don’t dumb down your writing just for the sake of it. But don’t spend countless minutes looking up a fancier word just to make yourself look smart.
  • Use a complex word when making a specific point. Don’t utilize sesquipedal words unless you’re endeavoring to prove..something.

Okay, that last sentence left me exhausted. I’ll see you next time.

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