In the first session of of my current Business Writing Fundamentals class, one student shared a desire to broaden her vocabulary. As a communicator working in an academic organization, she works with impressive thinkers, speakers, and writers. Her colleagues draw their language from deep word wells.
This writer’s objective is valid and achievable. She can take specific steps to grow vocabulary:
> Read as much as possible.
> Notice the words other writers choose.
> Look up terms that are new to you, and keep a log of useful words and definitions.
> Subscribe to “word a day” email messages (like AWAD, which I receive every day).
Vocabulary has value … but so does simplicity.
When our class convened the second week, we discussed how time-pressed our target audiences are. Most of the time, business readers don’t really read; they skim. Business writers have to work hard to capture and keep attention. We are challenged to express complex ideas quickly and concisely, with visual cues to train the reader’s eyes on key points and a clear call to action.
My vocabulary-focused student agreed with the importance of writing short, clear, actionable messages. But, she wondered, how should we prioritize these skills? Is it more important to write with a rich vocabulary, in keeping with sophisticated readers? Or should she focus on writing short, simple messages in the plainest language?
Off the cuff, I answered:
“Play with vocabulary, but work on brevity.”
Of course we want to use words that resonate with the reader. Sometimes the right terms exist in a lexicon beyond our everyday vocabulary. Sometimes, in order to connect with a reader, we have to learn and use new words.
But always we must respect the reader’s time by delivering our points as efficiently as possible. If you can say it simpler or shorter, do. When editing business messages, brevity trumps vocabulary—every time.
So go ahead: Make vocabulary a game. Challenge yourself to learn new words. Play with language enthusiastically, at every spare opportunity.
But consider brevity your day job. Treat it as a non-negotiable. Practice ruthless editing, every single day. Trim words. Eliminate jargon. Use words anyone could understand.
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What’s more important to your audience? Vocabulary or brevity? Why?