I was 19 when I enrolled in journalism school. I’d always been an avid reader and excelled in high school English, and upon learning that you could get paid to write, I signed up for a well-reputed private college.
Ah, 19-year-old me. I was an ambitious, overly smug writer. I loved to write – I always had – and I loved to let the world know, too. ‘Writer’ and ‘smart’ were two interchangeable aspects of my personality that I felt compelled to broadcast to all that would listen (or read). So I made sure my writing really “stood out”. It was all in the language I used: the man didn’t use the highway to get to work, he utilised it; the girl didn’t have messy hair – she had tangled tresses; the woman didn’t help the old man cross the road, she facilitated a smooth pilgrimage.
In my mind, my words danced around me like emblems of my internal swagger. I wasn’t entirely confident about who I was in the day-to-day, so I chose words to peacock my ego. And sometimes, it worked.
But in front of my tutors and lecturers? They saw right through my wordy charade.
Assignments were handed back with big, red strikes and scribbles. They looked like stab wounds inflicted upon my darling vocabulary. How dare they deny my brilliance! My (ab)use of the English language, they told me, was “too flowery”. I ought to tell it straight, or consider a career in academia.
Whichever course I was to choose, my writing was not currently as brilliant as I thought it was.
Confucius was the one that said, “Life is really simple, but we insist on making it complicated.” This same proverb can be applied to writing. We take a simple idea – say, a news story about a robbery – and embellish it with words that help us tell the story through our eyes…and water our ego-flower in the process. In the journalism industry, your eyes don’t matter, and nor does your ego. You’re merely a channel for the story; it flows through you, not from you.
The same can be said for copywriting. As a student journalist, I was using simple life events as a canvas for my creativity. Journalism has a job – to tell the news – but I’d confused this with ‘play Thesaurus-dip and see how many adjectives I could use in a sentence’. I didn’t care if the reader didn’t understand what I was saying, as long as I felt creatively fulfilled.
Thankfully, I’ve learned a lot about the art of simplicity since then.
As a copywriter, it’s my job to communicate a message. Whether it’s information about returning an item, a sales page about a life coaching services, or the particulars of a juice cleanse, the idea is to tell the reader what they need to know to overcome any objections to clicking here, navigating there, and reading on.
Of course, style, or your tone-of-voice has a lot to do with how successfully you do this. As Strunk & White, the godfathers of good grammar, put it, "style is the writer, and therefore what you are, rather than what you know, will at last determine your style." Words educate, but the ones you use should appeal to who you’re speaking to in a style that resonates with them (and feels natural for you).
Strunk and White also said, “Do not be tempted by a twenty-dollar word when there is a ten-center handy, ready and able." This is, of course, is open to interpretation. And there’s always an exception to the rule. What matters when you use an ambitious vocabulary is determined by why: is it a matter of showing off? Is it a matter of style? Is it to paint a clearer picture, or a more detailed picture? Is it because you’re not confident your message is powerful enough without the bells and whistles?
Creativity matters, and words are powerful. At their best, they excite, illuminate, educate and connect. At their worst, they can cause pain, and distort the bare facts of a story for the ego of a precocious writer.
You don’t have to be the loudest person on the internet, or be the wittiest, either. You don’t even have to be smartest. But what you do say should be clear. Because in the end, clarity always wins out over the abstract.