Putting Words to Work

Words may be fragile, dulled by poor use and often difficult to find, but they are still the best way to make ourselves understood by other people.

Every document – letter, policy, website, etc – faces a few crucial moments when it stands, naked and alone, fighting the busyness and clamouring for the attention of the reader.

Your choice of words is vital in this confrontation. The words need to convey a feeling of interest, a glow of friendliness, the assurance of sincerity, and the impression that you believe the message to be of sufficient importance to warrant the reader’s attention.

The minimum objective in any writing is to convey meaning, but beyond that are the really interesting objectives: precision, grace, logic and clearness.

Consider the reader

Writing has no purpose except to meet the needs of the reader.

Everything we write must take account of the reader’s comfort, interest, and capacity to understand. We must choose our words so that the reader will be sure to understand them without waste of time and thought. They must tell the necessary facts using the vocabulary of the reader. And they must convey to the reader something of the way we feel toward him.

When a person reads a document with specific words aimed directly at their situation, they know that some real, live human being has taken the trouble to invent sentences to convey a message specially to them.

Don’t be foggy

Words need to be clear. Write so that there is no doubt about what you are saying.

Words and sentences need to be sharp. Only use as many words as you really need to convey your thoughts.

Words should be simple. Simple, small words are usually better understood and more specific. Provide the simplest word so that the reader does not have to dig around for the meaning. Thoughtful writers do not use facilitate when they could use help, utilise when they could write use, endeavour instead of try, or sufficient when they could write enough.

Keep the reader awake

Words need to be strong. Use words like urgent, crisis, fatal, grave, essential for strong occasions. But don’t overuse them – worn-out words do not make an impression on the mind.

Words need to be vigorous and active. Use active sentences to keep your audience awake. Instead of writing “It was understood from you that shipment would be made by 6th March “, write “You said you would ship by 6th March.”

Use verbs, not nouns made from verbs. One way to make text easier to understand is to replace abstract nouns (nouns like ‘verification’, ‘identification’, ‘performance’, ‘encouragement’, ‘authorisation’) with the equivalent verb.