People and words

Short and simple

In my copywriting workshops I urge people to write in a style that’s short and simple. For example, by using small and clear words rather than long and complex ones. Why write “commence” when you can use “start” or simply “go”?

I also invite workshop participants to challenge me if they think I’ve got it wrong. For one reason: I’m human and I do make mistakes.

So, recently a participant told us that he felt that longer and more complex words made a textual argument stronger, because the reader would judge the writer as being intelligent, and therefore more convincing.

Is clever better?

His remark ignited a discussion about whether being clever makes a text better.

I recalled a study by Daniel Oppenheimer from Princeton University called “Consequences of Erudite Vernacular Utilized Irrespective of Necessity: Problems with Using Long Words Needlessly”.

It concludes: “When obvious causes for low fluency exist that are not relevant to the judgement at hand, people reduce their reliance on fluency as a cue; in fact, in an effort not to be influenced by the irrelevant source of fluency, they over-compensate and are biased in the opposite direction.”

In other words, “write clearly and simply if you can, and you’ll be more likely to be thought of as intelligent.”

Is there ever?

Oppenheimer’s conclusion leads also to a further question. Is there ever a need in copywriting for long and complex words, or jargon for that matter?

In my view, this depends on the reader of the text. When you want to adopt the language the reader is using in order to get the message across, you may need to include the difficult words they’re using. For example, and provided you understand them, you can use technical terms when writing for technicians or scientific phrases for academics.

Quick and easy

But even in these situations, you could bear in mind what the Dutch agency BureauTaal has found, namely that people with higher education levels give a document written in simple language a much higher quality mark than a difficult one.

Perhaps this is caused by most well-educated people, who tend to be strapped for time, appreciating a text more when it’s quick and easy to read rather than a piece they’ve got to plough through.

The long and short of it in copywriting is that if you, like me, are somebody who can write but isn’t a genius, you better make it snappy.