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Simplify Your Writing: Why Word Choice Matters

Award-winning writer Kathy Widenhouse has helped hundreds of nonprofits and writers produce successful content and has gained 600K+ views for her writing tutorials. She is the author of 9 books. See more of Kathy’s content here.

Should you simplify your writing? Perhaps your content is littered with ten-dollar words when simple one-dollar words (or ten-cent words) will do. 

But you feel you need to write “fancy” because it’s expected. People want thorough information, which includes lengthy and complicated explanations, right? 

Maybe not. In fact, two of America’s literary giants feuded over this very topic. 

William Faulkner (1897-1962) and Ernest Hemingway (1899-1961) were both Pulitzer and Nobel prize winning authors. Yet their writing styles differed dramatically. And they had choice words to say about the matter of word choice.

Let’s let them settle the question. 

Simplify your writing with Word Wise at Nonprofit Copywriter #WritingTips

Simplify your writing to widen your readership

"He has no courage,” Faulkner complained, referring to Hemingway. “He has never been known to use a word that might send a reader to the dictionary." 

Faulkner’s implication was meant as an insult. But he was right. Using a complicated word alienates a reader. She is forced to look up the word in order to understand the content. Or she feels intimidated because she didn’t know the word in the first place. 

A handful of good folks eagerly digest obscure five-syllable words combined with an elegant twist of phrase. But for the most part, readers read in order to gather information. Academic or scholarly or even highbrow language narrows your readership considerably. When you use simpler language, you’re more inclusive. More readers read your content.

If you want more readers, then simplify your writing. Faulkner said so.

Simplify your writing by choice 

Hemingway had a handy rebuttal to his nemesis (quoted by fellow writer and close Hemingway friend, A. E. Hotchner, in his biography Papa Hemingway: A Personal Memoir): "Poor Faulkner. Does he really think big emotions come from big words? He thinks I don’t know the ten-dollar words. I know them all right. But there are older and simpler and better words, and those are the ones I use.” 

Hemingway’s take? Simpler language and simplistic ideas are two different things. Hemingway made a conscious choice to use simpler words. He was known for his tight prose, honed as a journalist. Yet his content is respected for its depth.

Even sophisticated Ph.D.’s, according to copywriter Bob Bly, prefer plain language. “I have been writing B2B, health, financial, and technical copy for more than four decades,” says Bob. “In all that time, I have never had a reader complain, ‘This is too easy to read.’”

Do readers want you to simplify your writing?

In a roundabout way, both Faulkner and Hemingway were right. To Faulkner’s point – albeit a sideswipe – simpler language engages more readers, rather than focusing on a mere few. And as Hemingway said, simpler words can evoke strong emotions yet they’re more accessible to more readers than complicated prose. 

“Nobody wants it to be harder,” says award-winning writer and communicator Ann Wylie. “No matter your audience, make your message easier to read.“ 

If you want readers to read your content, use those $1 dollar words. Or even ten-cent words. Even when you know the $10 ones.

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