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Ron Cooley, English Faculty

Writing Concisely

Why should I write concisely? How do I do that?

I guess it seems kind of intuitive. I heard something on CBC that was actually very helpful about that. They had done a study, probably some educational psychologist had done the study, in which people were asked to read a passage of text, and it was all kinds of readers asked to read different passages of texts and indicate which writer they thought was most intelligent. ...consistently, whoever the readers were, they found that the texts that were clearest, simplest, and easiest to follow made the readers think that the writers were most intelligent. You don't want to create the impression that you're not intelligent, that you don't understand your subject, [and] that you're avoiding with big words rather than addressing the topic that's in question. The best reason to write concisely is because it will make you look good, it will help communication, and people think highly of you if you communicate well. They think less highly of your work if they think you are actually trying to avoid communicating; that you're trying to impress rather than communicate directly with them. I think it means using a vocabulary that you're comfortable with. It means not turning to the thesaurus every few minutes to look for a bigger word when you have a smaller word that works perfectly well. One of the things about using specialized terminology in whatever discipline is that that terminology is there for a purpose. It communicates something that can't be communicated in ordinary conversational language, and if you've inflated all of the surrounding language, then those specialized terms actually don't convey that forcefully what they are supposed to convey because they get lost in this sea of muddy language. So if you selectively use the terms that are specific to your discipline, English or Physics or whatever it is, and the rest of the time you write in a slightly formal but ordinary level..., then you're going to communicate effectively.