Use the smallest word that does the job

Mark Twain famously said “Don’t use a five-dollar word when a fifty-cent word will do.”

I love this concept of word expensiveness. Each reader has a budget of word cash to spend reading what you write. Their budget depends on free time, interest level, vocabulary, etc. Whatever that budget is, it’s up to you to give them the best deal you can.

Use the smallest word that does the job.

E.B. White

Years after reading On Writing Well by William Zinsser, I still remember the chapter on simplicity. He said good writing is easy on the reader, no matter the context or the audience. User manuals, emails, scientific journals, technical documentation, Slack messages, wiki pages, anything. There’s never an excuse to punish the reader.

Just because people work for an institution, they don’t have to write like one. Institutions can be warmed up. Administrators can be turned into human beings. Information can be imparted clearly and without pomposity.

William Zinsser

I read that after years of trying to sound impressive in my writing. “Look at all these words I know! Observe how professional I sound!” That chapter showed me that the more I make the reader work, the less I get my message across.

I didn’t sound smart, I sounded like someone who wanted to sound smart. Nowadays, whenever I read something that reeks of trying to sound smart, I think of the time George Orwell took this Ecclesiastes verse:

I returned and saw under the sun, that the race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, neither yet bread to the wise, nor yet riches to men of understanding, nor yet favour to men of skill; but time and chance happeneth to them all.

…and translated it into what he called “modern English of the worst sort”:

Objective consideration of contemporary phenomena compels the conclusion that success or failure in competitive activities exhibits no tendency to be commensurate with innate capacity, but that a considerable element of the unpredictable must invariably be taken into account.

Talk about punishing the reader, huh? Whatever you’re writing and whoever it’s for, write it as simply and as humanly as possible.

The shorter and the plainer the better.

Beatrix Potter

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