Word-craft, like any design endeavor, benefits from elegance because less is more. We should aim to convey maximum meaning with the least number of words.
And then there are the words, themselves. If we bypass words that act as speed bumps and snags in favor of smaller ones, that’s also a win.
Will a colorful word add nuance or texture or meaning? If you think it will and would make a difference, then go for it. But if you risk stopping the reader cold, then reel yourself in. Stay simple, common.
Streamlining doesn’t mean we must dumb it down or be sterile, but our writing should be built for speed, and speed assumes uninterrupted comprehension. Big words can cause a reader to stumble.
There are notable exceptions to the big words rule. If you grew up watching or reading William F. Buckley, even his Blackford Oakes novels, then you know what I mean. Buckley was a lover of language and created a, shall we say, elevated effect. You girded up your mind when you encountered Buckley in any format.
So much for exceptions. The rule is that we want to put our readers on a glide path and keep them there.
If it’s fiction, we want to “put them under” — we want them to dream the fictive dream. If non-fiction, we want to induce a similar form of immersion.
Style and voice are vital, too, but they can’t emerge without a mastery of the economy I’ve described. They aren’t the product of word choice as much as how we think onto the page, how we create an overall effect, and how we leave the reader feeling.
Do you want to leave your readers feeling the way you intended? First, strive for economy. It’s the surest way to edify, to leave your readers better than you found them.
Anthony Rotolo is a creative professional who works in publishing, podcasting and pedagogy.