The truth about SAT words: Inflated language could be killing your readership

Does your writing make it seem as though you swallowed a thesaurus?I wrote my thesis on gothic romance novels written in the eighteenth century. As I combed through the thousand-page tomes, I was doing double duty: one finger in my novel, another in a dictionary. That’s fine for academic work, especially on more esoteric subject matter. But for more casual fare that you skim in a blog reader or on your smartphone, fiddling with a dictionary app becomes tiresome. Even if your readers’ vocabularies are loaded with $5 words, there’s a stiltedness that arises when you load your prose with verbiage. But what do you do if that’s, well, you?

In college, I shared a room with a girl whose vocabulary could best mine any day. Big words tripped off her tongue. And because those words were in her arsenal, she used them every chance she got. When her papers started coming back with notes on them saying, “this reads unnaturally,” and “you don’t need to use a thesaurus,” however, she was confused. After all, her papers weren’t inflated—that’s how she spoke and wrote 24/7. The problem was that even though the language came easily to her, it read as affected and hoity-toity to her audience.

Get vocal

One of the most effective tools I use every day in my own work is reading my writing out loud to myself. This lets me catch a variety of errors, from subject/verb disagreement to your/you’re mix-ups to run-on sentences to convoluted tangents. As you read, take note of areas where you stumble. Remember, you want anything you write—blog posts, important emails, official documents—to read fluidly. The more someone has to pause to figure out how to say a certain word or unravel a tricky clause, the less attention they’ll be paying to your point and the less likely they’ll be to reach the end of your piece.

Evaluate your audience

According to the National Adult Literacy Survey completed in 2003, the average American adult reads at a 9th grade level. Chances are, you’re writing for someone—and that someone isn’t you. So then the question becomes, who are these people that comprise your audience: Are they lawyers, who have spent the last decade in higher education? Are they contractors who are looking to improve their clientele? Are they stay-at-home dads who have to balance your blog with their toddlers tacking the stairs? Weigh the value of sticking to what you know versus finding words and phrases that better suit your purpose. It’s not about dumbing down, it’s about being effective.

Call in backup

Still not sure if your writing needs to be tweaked? Here’s an easy fix: Ask a friend, family member, or coworker to read over a few writing samples. Choose someone you can trust to provide honest, critical feedback of your work. You can even hire an editor for a consultation to get a professional opinion. Instead of asking, “So, what did you think?” opt for targeted queries like, “Do you think my sentences are too long?” and “Do you think my word choice is a too formal?” Be specific, and remember to take the criticism constructively. This isn’t about you. This is about improving your success rate. And it could be as easy as becoming more accessible.

Resources you can use

The average newspaper is written at an 11th grade reading level. That’s higher than most adults are comfortable reading. For assistance in writing plainly—and examples of texts written explicitly for different reading levels—I like William H. DuBay’s “Working With Plain Language Training Manual,” which is available here for free. Scholastic also has a Book Wizard tool that you can use to find books that have been rated according to grade level criteria.

What challenges do you face when it comes to writing for a particular audience?

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