Language is a virus. Most writers pick up one or two pesky word bugs at the start of our careers. Engineers, for example, write approximately in front of any number they haven’t measured to at least three decimal points.
Bureaucrats of all sorts learn to disseminate information and make decisions in accordance with strategic plans that have passed a stringent risk-based analysis process.
If that sentence makes sense to you, the virus has already taken hold. It’s time for a 30-second cure. This edit involves curing one word bug at a time.
How good writers go bad
You might recognize this sad but true story. In your first job you resisted using words that didn’t mean anything to you. For a week or so you felt the reader’s pain. You noticed problems with acronyms, jargon and abstract words that ruled over everyone in the office. Everyone but you, that is.
To maintain your sanity, you replaced vague, abstract, and redundant words with ordinary words that had a familiar, specific meaning. You enthusiastically suggested plain language alternatives at the first team meeting. And then you gave in.
At the start of our careers—or when we’re new to writing—it’s usually more important to fit in than it is to write clearly. Having caught the virus, we are soon stringing abstract words into long sentences that pass inspections all the way to the vice-president’s office.
We learn to write like the experts, think like our colleagues, and use the deputy minister’s special words in every briefing note. Because we are learning to write at work.
That’s why managers assume everyone will know what “address the issue” means. And why most accountants think “utilize” is a proper grown-up word. And why some editors think it makes perfect sense to replace “effect” with “impact.”
Cures for word bugs
Everyday words are the writer’s equivalent of good bacteria. If your boss prefers clear, ordinary words, you will inevitably pick up good writing habits.
However, if you rely on multi-syllable abstractions and technical language to justify your existence, it’s time to take the cure. You need a daily 30-second dose of looking things up. It’s dictionary time!
The flag: See it again for the first time
Every writer starts a unique collection of word bugs. There are probably a few in your writing. Do not despair. Pick one or two bugs to fix for now.
Start by flagging words you use all the time but distrust at some gut level. Words that just don’t sound like you.
Make a list. Your list will make more sense if you make it yourself. Here’s a starter kit for writers who need a nudge:
- words to cut: approximately
- words to rethink: utilize, strategize
The fix: Look it up and let it go
Look up the word that bugs you. In some cases you won’t get to the dictionary before deciding that your sentence is fine without that word.
In other cases, your investigation might include a thesaurus as well as a dictionary or two. There’s nothing wrong with getting to know the word before you get rid of it.
Words to cut: Challenge word habits
Don’t ask for permission to stop using approximately in front of every number. It’s just a fancy way of saying about.
Here’s how your 30-second edits might look:
- We estimate the project will take
[because estimates are approximate by definition]
- The department is responsible for
approximately43 river crossings. [because the department can count to 43]
- The embankments are
approximately4 to 5 metres high.
[because a range is already approximate]
If you find one or two places where approximately adds useful emphasis, keep it. That’s the word’s entire reason for existing.
Words to rethink: Find an everyday word
Instead of utilizing words with four or five syllables, try using shorter words that don’t force readers to notice your fancy word. Save utilize for describing an otherwise unexpected benefit or profit.
- Appointment reminders help reduce wait times and improve the [utilization = use] of therapists’ time.
- Our work plan includes [utilization = use] of a project risk registry.
- This technique utilizes [keep?] waste by-products as fuel.
Not all good ideas are strategies. Sometimes it’s just a good idea:
- The project team will [strategize = adjust] construction phases to limit their impact on natural and public areas.
Set a limit of five word fixes a week, so you don’t create too much change in your overall style. Also, you don’t want to run the risk of becoming the only writer your team trusts to write winning proposals and engaging reports. Do you?
Dumb down vs smarten up
The goal here is not to “dumb down” your writing. The goal is to make your writing smart enough for reasonable readers. A reasonable reader is a human being who simply wants to know enough about the topic to make an important decision quickly. Without using a dictionary.