A Word on Words

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December 13, 2011 by bradcharlesbeals

The words you use, better than any other indicator, reflect the quality of the thoughts behind them. That’s not to say good thinking can’t happen without corresponding good expression—intellectual genius often goes hand in hand with an inability to express it. But good expression rarely happens without good thinking to drive it. That is, a complicated idea, clearly expressed, indicates that complicated thinking really did happen.

A woman playing chopsticks on the piano might be a virtuoso, but she’s probably not since most people can play chopsticks and few are virtuosos. The expression of chopsticks can convey only that level of proficiency and nothing higher. And if she plays a Rogers and Hammerstein tune, we know she’s at least that good. But is that the extent of her skill? We don’t know, and we wouldn’t assume a level higher than that until we’ve heard an expression that would indicate it.

But if she does move on to playing Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto #3, our estimation of her abilities will rise, and—now this is the important part—we will never again put her skill level at chopsticks or show tunes, even if we never hear Rachmaninoff again!

Your use of language conveys quality of thought in a similar way. Expression will convey that level of thinking, but nothing beyond. If it’s simple, you convey simplicity, which is not necessarily bad—you might just be fooling around with chopsticks. If your words are muddled, you will convey muddled thinking. And if all your expression is mundane, prosaic, plain…well, then that’s the only tune we’re hearing.

But doesn’t this contradict simplicity as doctrine for writing web copy? you ask. Doesn’t what we know about usability suggest we pound out nothing but chopsticks?

Not exactly. Even if our virtuoso prefers to play chopsticks, and even if we never hear a concerto again, her credibility at the piano is established. We know she’s good. Business writing for the web is not about entertainment—it’s about utility and credibility.

So it’s not imperative that every sentence should knock it out of the park (in fact, if you try to accomplish that, you’ll convolute your text) but that your sum-total expression does. If you give your readers a taste of Rachmaninoff early on to establish credibility, they’ll listen closely to the rest.

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