Writing tip: Use words your readers understand

Writing tip: Use words your readers understand.

Use the vocabulary of your reader. That's a key factor in plain language.

  • If you are writing for children, use words they understand.
  • If you are writing for doctors, use correct medical terms.
  • If you are writing for the general public, use the same kind of words they would use.

Remember what your high school English teacher told you? She gave you credit for introducing surprising, unusual vocabulary. That was evidence of cognitive learning, and mental agility.

Now forget it! That was appropriate advice for writing high school book reviews, academic articles and 'creative writing' such as literary fiction. In those cases your readers appreciate evidence that your brain is working hard, and are willing to stretch their own brains.

But when you're at work, you are writing for someone who needs information: clear information in a hurry.

The success of your communication depends on one thing: does the intended reader understand it? If not, you've failed. In the big bad world of business, you don't get extra points for mysterious language—you get points deducted.

Fancy words from an airline trying to impress
This functional bag contains specially selected products chosen for their ability to enhance your wellbeing.

Same message in words most passengers will understand
This bag contains stuff that may make you feel better.

(Clarity becomes embarrassing when the message is pointless.)

More tips like this in our short online courses in plain language


Feb 13, 2012 • Posted by Motivate Your Audience. « Writing for Web

[…] http://contented.com/contented/2011/writing-tip-use-words-your-readers-understand/ […]

Sep 26, 2011 • Posted by Heather

This is good advice Rachel, and I completely agree that we should use the language that our readers use. In practice I have two situations which cause me difficulty though: firstly, what to do when the language that our readers use is not accurate enough: for example, writing about government regulations, which must be done precisely and clearly, for an audience of young people, who typically prefer to use very general expressions. Secondly, how to know what type of language our readers use: for example writing for a group of high school students located overseas who the writer has never met or interacted with. What advice do you have for these situations? Thanks in advance!

Sep 27, 2011 • Posted by Rachel McAlpine

Heather, thanks for your comments. Yes, in practice the right steps are not always obvious! Focus on using words they understand, as in the headline and tip icon, rather than words they would necessarily use. Then you won’t write like, like, like, like a teen like ager, nor will you create non-stakeholder-congenial official glossary-defined documentation impenetrable to the taxpayer population.

Feb 07, 2012 • Posted by Motivate Your Audience « mintytoothpick

[…] -Use words they understand http://contented.com/contented/2011/writing-tip-use-words-your-readers-understand/ […]

Aug 18, 2011 • Posted by Alistair McAlpine

Too true Rachel.
Although I would prefer “Use words your reader understands” (singular). Reading is a very private activity fortunately, which is why we are able to communicate so directly as writers. Good plain Language public speakers are rare whereas most of us are fluent plain languagers when talking one-on-one with a single person, even if we have just met.

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