Editing Tips- Article 4: High Vocabulary

You didn’t really think I thought Excising Expletives is a good title, did you? It’s awful! And why? Tone, reader comprehension and SEO.

Big words make us sound smart…sometimes. But they also make us sound pretentious.

But then there is this thing called word efficiency: finding the best and fewest words to communicate meaning. Word efficiency is a very good thing, especially for web readers.

However, few people want to remember what your complex words mean and then interpret what they mean together. So word efficiency is undermined by readers not wanting to read at all.

Using lower level vocabulary words has nothing to do with the intelligence of your audience, though keep in mind the average American reader reads at an 8th grade level.

I used to think an 8th grade level was pretty high, until an 8th grader asked me what the word “stance” means. When I asked my classes, even the highest achieving students weren’t sure.

Stance?!?! Really?!?! That’s a high vocabulary word?

Apparently it is. So I had wasted a few days talking about their stance, and they had no idea what I was talking about. So I had my athletes pose and compare the variety of the stances across sports and within each sport. It was a great lesson!

Many word processors have grade level indicators in the same area as Word Count. Use it. (This also includes more complex sentence structure, so keep that in mind.)

Some words people probably know, but they really should be replaced with simpler, more common (read: boring) word. Like utilize.

First, understand I love the word utilize. I feel it shows I have an advantage because of the thing I used. “I utilized my personal network to build my professional network.” Plus used has a connotation of “taking advantage of”.

Alas, it’s one of those words that is unnecessary…especially for web readers. Readers can move over used, but get hung up on utilized. Maybe it’s the jagged edges of the t and z. Maybe they’re tripping over syllables. I don’t know. But it doesn’t work efficiently, and it sounds a bit pretentious.

And speaking of web readers: if you want your website to show up in search results, you have to use the words they will be searching for.

Recently I wrote an article about making logos for a client. I originally titled it something witty. Then I thought, I want a specific audience to come to this site, so I changed it to How [Company] Develops Logos. Then I realized the audience will be searching for How to Create Logos, so I added the [Company] Way. Then I realized they aren’t going to look up How to Create Logos, they’re going to search for How to Make Logos, or even logo DIY. So I ended up with How to Make Logos the [Company] Way.

You can put key words in the body of the text as well, but the title is the first thing the web reader sees, so make it as accurate as they need it to be to get to your site. (My previous title in this series, Excising Expletives…not gonna work.

Surely you can use “big” words sometimes. And what about the words within the industry or subculture?

Always always always keep in mind the most important part of writing: the audience. Who is your audience and what do you want them to do?

If you know your audience is accustomed to finding higher-vocabulary words, you may be able to get away with it. But people are people.

And you never know when someone who is not in the intended audience will read your writing. If you want to take them in, make sure your writing is understandable to secondary audiences as much as possible.

My brother and I are working on his resume. He’s been in Navy intelligence for 9 years and his head is full of military jargon. Some of the people looking at his resume will be familiar with military terms and job duties, but there are many who are not. My brother and I have to consider both audiences, rewording to communicate effectively with a civilian, but maintaining the integrity of the description for someone who knows.

Tone also matters. A more formal tone will benefit from higher vocabulary words, but not at the sake of losing the audience!

Finally, if you are going to use high vocabulary, give it context. Make sure if the reader doesn’t know the word, they get the gist of it by reading it with the words and ideas that surround it.

Complex vocabulary does not necessarily make good writing. That’s another Good Writing Myth. Often it’s way more difficult to convey meaning using more common words, but that’s what makes a good writer.


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