Advice for journalists: Cut back on big words

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Many journalists are “sesquipedalians,” and unapologetic at that. They foment the impression that eschewing bloviation is for dotards.

In other words, they like to use unusual words.

These are not the words that only journalists seem to use, like “acrimony,” “mull,” “spark,” “axed,” and “decry.” Nor are they the words journalists often parrot from sources, like “high rate of speed,” “end user,” “stakeholder,” or “bad actor.”

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No, they are words like “palimpsest,” which has appeared in American news reports seven times in the past month, according to a Nexis search; “imbroglio,” more than two dozen appearances; “imprecation,” at least three uses; “feckless,” which has shown its face over 100 times; or “atavistic,” “inchoate,” and “sclerotic,” each with about 20 appearances. Do you know what they mean? Does your audience?

If you think they do, you might be surprised.

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A friend with a graduate degree recently remarked that she had been noticing more words in news reports that she didn’t understand. She said another friend had noticed the same thing.

This is not a new phenomenon, of course—we frequently quote The Elements of Style advice “Do not be tempted by a twenty-dollar word when there is a ten-center handy, ready and able”— though the friends may have spotted a trend. Reporters want to show that they know things, to establish themselves as experts of a sort, and one way to do that is to use big words. We’ve seen journalism students look up a word in a thesaurus, and then use the most impressive synonym, or so it seems. When questioned, students have replied that they wanted to “sound smart.”

But a journalist’s job is to inform, and information will not come through if the audience doesn’t understand the words.

Poynter came up with a list in 2014 of some words that readers might not understand, including “lambaste,” “tout,” “salvo,” and “opine.” (It’s a sign of how quickly things change that many of the links in that article and the Storify of tweets about the subject are now dead.)

In 2009 and 2010, The New York Times wrote about the 50 words most frequently looked up by its readers. We mentioned some above, so little has changed. At the time, if you double-clicked on a word in an online story, you could follow it to a definition in the American Heritage Dictionary. Even though that’s not the official dictionary of The Times, which, like many news organizations, uses Webster’s New World College Dictionary. We were unable to activate it in several browsers we tried recently, but you can still look it up: Right-clicking on a word in most browsers will offer a definition, research, or synonyms.

But when you go to look up a word, you stop reading the story.

When this columnist trains writers and editors, we often talk of a reporter who had used an obscure word, was challenged, and defended it by saying, “I love to send my readers to the dictionary.” This editor replied: “That’s great. But how do you know they’re going to come back?” A writer wants to keep readers reading, to keep them engaged in our stories.

One can be a “sesquipedalian”—someone who loves to use long words—and still serve the readers. If you provide enough context that the reader can understand the fancy word, they will stay with you. Write, for example, that “the politician’s face turned red as he bloviated for five minutes about why the bill should not be passed.” Even if your readers don’t learn exactly what “bloviated” means, they will have a good idea. And you gave them your fancy word without sending them away in the hope they would come back.

From archives: “She identified herself as a reporter. He then walked behind her and punched her in the side of the head” 

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Merrill Perlman managed copy desks across the newsroom at The New York Times, where she worked for 25 years. Follow her on Twitter at @meperl.