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I blame the teachers…

April 17, 2011

… And the lecturers. In fact, everyone in education who uses word limits.

Because even though it’s called a word ‘limit’, it’s actually a word ‘goal’. Students work towards it, aiming for some blessed release: ‘I only have 500 words to go, then I’m FINISHED and I can go to bed/to the pub/to the library’ (yeah, right).

This ultimately encourages wordiness. There is no reward for being succinct. No bonus marks for being punchy.

You could argue that the student who fits the most arguments into the space allotted, will take home the HD. But if you’ve done an English degree (and I have), you’ll know that’s not quite true.

I found my Honours thesis a couple of years ago, and I actually winced to read the document that earned me first-class honours.  It was replete with words like ‘conflate’ and ‘nexus’.

Don’t get me wrong, I love these words. But I’ve come to realise that it’s sometimes more effective to say ‘confuse’ or ‘link’.

Is this pandering to the lowest common denominator? Possibly.

However, I would argue that the elegant and slightly obscure words you enjoy using, should be used sparingly. Perhaps not in an English degree, but certainly in business writing.

That’s because most people don’t really like reading.

Well, they might like reading Dan Brown, but they don’t really want to spend time reading about your ‘innovative and dynamic solutions’.

They want you to make your point, then move on. So, here is some advice for keeping it simple:

  • You can always cut words out of your writing. Edit it once, twice or more. No excuses. There’s always something to lose.
  • Don’t show off. Never choose the word ‘utilise’ instead of ‘use’, just because it has more syllables. Trust me, you sound like a wanker.
  • Use pictures where you can. It doesn’t have to be a fancy stock shot, but maybe a flow chart or a table, even just dot points. Make friends with the SmartArt function in MS Office.
  • Pay attention to rhythm. This harder to explain, but I’ll try. When you read your words back, you’ll notice the rhythm and cadence of the sentence. Some words interrupt it. In the point above, for example, I wrote ‘it doesn’t necessarily have to be a fancy stock shot’, but decided that ‘necessarily’ is a long, stilted word that isn’t necessarily necessary (allow me one word-nerd joke). So I junked it.

This defense of simplicity is a bit surprising, coming from someone who once tried to explain the word ‘facetious’ to a nightclub bouncer.

But standing in a queue with a captive audience is different. When the aim is  tell your company’s story, or explain your business solution, it pays to go under the word limit, not over.


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  1. Great post; I’ve passed it on to a couple of people.

  2. Thanks John – I am glad some people like my rants. I try to make them instructive at least!

  3. David Moynihan permalink

    I always find it fascinating to see how the English language is tailored to conform to objectives and audiences. In my early masters days, i remember feeling somewhat agrieved at having to cut out passages about ‘sifting through the rubble of Wall Street’s banks’ etc. but it ultimately provided me with much more appreciation of writing for an audience, something which i think, as a consultant, should be prioritised over a vain ambition to write artistically. Really great blog Belinda, i wish i had the energy/lack of laziness to do something as creative. Fair play

  4. Writing artistically is good fun – in the right context! Thanks for the comments, nice to know someone is reading 🙂

  5. Elouise Holmes permalink

    Hey B-when do you find time to write these blog posts?! Keep it up though. It’s one of those rare ones that I read from start to end. Informative and entertaining.

  6. Jacqui permalink

    I’m really enjoying reading your blogs Belinda. My current career path relies a lot on trying to convey technical concepts in easy, concise and interesting to read papers. Which I find difficult, it not excruciating, at times. But the easier it is to read, the more people read it, the more citations I get and the better I look to funding bodies and prospective bosses.

    I think I’m a reasonably good writer – for a scientist – but I definitely need more tips on how to communicate better!

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