The purpose of writing is to convey meaning, to communicate.
This communication can be anything. It could be a thought, an image, an idea, an emotion, or even just a list. But the bottom line is that writing is meant to be understood by others.*
So why do we so often obfuscate (render obscure, unclear, or unintelligible) our writing?
“Eschew obfuscation, espouse elucidation” or put in more plain terms “avoid being unclear, support being clear” (thanks Wikipedia).
Sometimes we use language as a way to communicate that we are smart, or at least smarter than we may appear. Sometimes we use language to gain an advantage over others, to make them feel dumber and less knowledgeable. And sometimes we simply can’t help ourselves.
So here are some guidelines for when to use the five dollar word, and when to try something with less than three syllables:
1) Know your audience: Certain audiences expect certain language. In a business meeting for instance, don’t ever miss an opportunity to use the word utilize instead of the word use.
2) Know the word you’re using: Unsure of a word’s exact and precise meaning? Look it up or don’t use it.
3) Does this word convey a precise and specific meaning not conveyed by the shorter or more commonly known word? If not, then examine why you need to use it.
4) What is the purpose of this piece of writing? There is no one size fits all approach to this. For technical writing, precise correct words are desired. For a blog post meant to be read in 3-4 minutes with your morning coffee, maybe keep it simple.
5) Explain yourself: It’s not necessarily patronizing to provide a definition. In a blog post this can be done with a link, or between commas or parenthesis, something the reader who knows the word can skip (or check to make sure you know what you’re talking about).
6) It does not mean you’re not smart when you write clearly and concisely: In fact it tends to mean just the opposite. If you really understand something, you can explain it to others at whatever level they’re coming in with.
7) Use different words: You’d be amazed how many ways there are to say the same thing. Take Google’s definition of obfuscation from above (obscure, unclear, unintelligible). Or how about convey, teach, explain, etc.? Avoiding repetition in writing communicates that you have a command of the language more than flowery words.
What’s the most obscure word you use all the time? What is the most recondite word you utilize habitually?
*Excluding diaries, private writing, etc.