On writing for writers.
Why word choice can kill your writing.
October 17, 2011Posted by on
I recently got a new job for a company that specializes in this ultra-cool, state-of-the-art technology. I was hired in the marketing department, specifically as a copywriter, so this awesome, nifty technology is of little importance to the blog post. Therefore, I am going to leave you in the dark as to what that actually is. Instead, we’re going to focus on something my new supervisor and I discussed in my post-hire interview: word choice.
As a copywriter, my job may sound rather basic: I write content (or “copy”) in order to sell our product/idea/concept/mission to a select group of individuals carefully selected due to their individual interest in that product/idea/concept/mission. This sounds easy enough, doesn’t it? I basically know my character (the market to which I’m writing) and I know my content (this product/idea/concept/mission I’ve been set out to sell), and I write to make that sell happen. That should be easy, Mary, you say. You’re a writing major. You clearly know all of these complex words and formatting techniques that will practically write these pieces for you.
My supervisor and I talked about the misconception many amateur writers have about what it takes to make them a “good” writer. What we both noticed as a trend in the “new writers” world was the inappropriate use of the language, the misunderstanding of the target audience, and the ultimate corporate-suicide that follows.
What does this mean, exactly?
It means that students or recent graduates who are pursuing or successfully completed a course in creative writing, literature, or other field that emphasizes a strong writing skill and vocabulary set, believe with all their heart that the key to writing a compelling and interesting piece of work is to incorporate every single cool and exciting word they’ve learned through the course of their education. To show off their smarts, these students jam every intelligent-sounding vocabulary word they know into their work, use the most complex sentences known to man (which, at this stage in their writing careers, are usually not even that good to begin with), and they expect their readers to know what the hell is going on. They believe their writing is high quality and that their intelligence is an impressive and awe-inspiring spectacle upon which to gaze.
(I feel like this phenomenon is twice as bad when we take into account those writers without an educational background to support them.)
What’s really happening? Instead, these writers have lost more than fifty-percent of their readers within the first twenty-five words. Their piece is usually jumbled with confusing transitions and unprofessional organization. Instead of sounding intelligent, they have turned off their readers who, instead of feeling like they are being spoken to, feel as though they are being spoken down to. No one wants to read something that demeans them.
However, writers don’t seem to get this. Many people are compelled to argue, “it’s not my fault they don’t have the same kind of education and experience I have.” Though you may have a point there, it also isn’t their fault that you decided to flaunt this education and experience you have without a shred of concern for the readers you are hoping will make your piece at least somewhat marketable. Perhaps what these foolish writers need to realize is that the reader is the one who, in the grand scheme of things, determines whether or not a writer is successful. If you lose your readership, you lose any chance at success.
Of course, there is a time and place for this sort of intellectual writing: in highly researched, academic papers, for example. There are also some writers outside of that field who are able to incorporate this kind of language skillfully enough to not ostracize his or her audience. However, most writers I aim to reach out to are not those kinds of writers. The writers I am trying to reach are writers like me, writers who will, overall, be writing to the general public. Whether that means they are doing what I’m doing now (writing blogs), or what I do for a living (copywriting), or simply what I do for fun (creative works), these writers do not need the superfluous, flowery, complicated language they often try to use. These writers must take into account their market more so than they take into account their pride.
In almost all cases, when something can be explained in simpler, easier-to-understand terms, use those terms. Instead of confusing your audience, instead of making your reader feel stupid, try making your reader feel welcomed and embraced. Try sucking them into a story that won’t require them to break off to check a dictionary every five minutes. Try showing them how talented you are at telling a story without overloading your writing with complicated, usually unnecessary vocabulary.
What truly makes a great writer isn’t one who flaunts their blue-whale-sized lexicon. What truly makes a great writer is one who can suck a reader so deeply into his or her story that their audience won’t be able to put the book down. That, right there, is something to be proud of.