Let’s talk about something that gets a bad rap for not being sexy…
Here are a couple of staggering (and terrifying) statistics about the USA:
- 50% of adults cannot read a book written at an eighth-grade level
- 45 million are functionally illiterate and read below a 5th grade level
Now, granted, as writers, we’re all completely literate and probably can read and write at higher than an 8th grade level.
But do we?
How often are we being lazy in our language choices? How often are we dumbing-down our vocabulary – completely unintentionally?
Don’t misunderstand me – I’m not advocating for swapping in $5 words to sound more educated, important, or fancy. That’s just as damaging as using boring, mundane, common words in your writing.Are you dumbing down your language? Let's make words sexy again! Click To Tweet
What I’m challenging you to do it to really focus in on where you’re contributing to the dumbing down of language – and to the subsequent thoughts behind what you’re expressing.
Where am I being sloppy in my communication?
So we’re clear:
I’m not making a comment on the proliferation of bad spelling and grammar that litters social media. We’ve all made bonehead spelling or grammar errors (or worse: been assisted by autocorrect!). And I know we’ve all got our “problem children” in grammar or spelling!
I’m asking you to challenge yourself to be exciting and surprising with your language – while still expressing yourself clearly!
I remember, vividly, sitting in my freshman English class watching Dead Poets Society. I already knew that my life’s work would revolve around stories, writing, language, and yes, poetry. It hit home for me…
A man isn’t “very tired” – he’s exhausted! (Watch this 34 second clip.)
What’s the difference between exciting, surprising, and precise language and $5 words?
Do you know what ‘ameliorate’ means?
I’ll admit, the first time I encountered this word… I had to look it up. And I’ve found I’m much more well-read that most people I know. My understanding of language is impressive – even if I don’t always use the more exciting words.
Ameliorate – v. make (something bad or unsatisfactory) better
And it’s a perfect example of a $5 word.
Ameliorate is a beautiful word. It’s fun to say. But it’s complicated. It’s fancy. And it serves not to improve our collective language use but to make your reader feel dumb.
Not what I’m challenging you to do! Don’t use empty, fancy words! Use real language – and challenge yourself to find the synonym that is the best word, the most exciting word, for your thought.
Fancy Talk 101:
I once wrote for a client who specialized in helping companies recruit, hire, and train employees – and get them to stay. The client’s target audience were CEOs and HR directors – aka “Important People”. The challenge was that I’d write and write and write and…
The words were empty.
I was using 15 words to say what I could more clearly express in 6.
15 fancy, empty words – designed to make the writer feel important and appear educated.
Or 6 powerful, exact words – designed to captivate the reader and clearly express an idea. To woo that reader.
Woo your reader, friend! Woo them.
Here are 5 Tips to Make Your Words Sexy (and Powerful!):
Swap out common words for their more exciting (more precise) counterparts
A great place to practice this is in your social media updates or text messages. Yep, in your texting!
I sent this to a friend:
They’ll be ecstatic for the message of positivity.
(I swapped excited to ecstatic.)
Frankly, ‘positive message’ is a clearer choice because it’s not the passive voice. But once in a great while, the added beauty of flipping the language is worth it. It’s all about context!
Don’t go for the okay word – challenge yourself to use the perfect word.
Speaking of passive voice…
Use active verbs!
Verbs have power – they’re the building blocks of language. Don’t believe me? Think back to conjugating verbs when you were learning any foreign language…
Now imagine being in-country knowing only nouns. (The part of speech that is traditionally thought of as ‘vocabulary’.) You can point at the dog and the bus and the donut – but you can’t express anything about them.
Verbs are where it’s at!
Parts of speech
There are still generations of Americans who learned parts of speech (sentence diagraming) in elementary school. But when I was in school, understanding how language worked was less important than reading.
So I could read a sentence but I couldn’t tell you why the sentence needed to be structured that way. Why the verb and the nouns and the adjectives and adverbs all worked together, in what order, to convey thought.
I didn’t realize I was only glimpsing the power of language until I started learning Spanish…
I learned to recognize parts of speech in Spanish – and then could translate in my head to find their English counterparts. This impacted my writing in surprising ways – and pretty much “cured” me of using the passive voice to sound fancy and important.
Granted, the sentence structure and word order from Spanish to English can be different!
Humble yourself – go back and learn (or re-learn) this. You’ll have a deeper understanding of what makes language powerful and beautiful – and what weakens language and robs it of meaning and impact.
Read poetry/Listen to beautiful speeches
Study the masters of language who know how to put thoughts onto paper in a way that is powerful and beautiful. And I’m not talking about the “ancients” – where you have to wade through the archaic language to find meaning (I’m looking at you, Shakespeare) but the more modern-day wordsmiths that bring enlightenment to language.
Try Billy Collins
Or Steve Orlen
If you really hate poetry… You can listen to beautiful speeches. But you need to be looking to the early 80s or before to find the ones that use majestic and precise language. Ronald Regan’s speeches are the use of language at its finest.
Immerse yourself in the beauty of language
Open yourself to find the beauty of language. Listen for the words, phrases, moments where language is used precisely and definitively to convey a message. Train yourself to be a student of beauty – but specifically in the written and oral traditions.
Take note of it.
Breathe it in.
Allow it to settle into your bones, into your DNA, and influence your writing.
What do you think? Comment below, and I’ll personally respond!
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