Watch Your Language: The Science of Simple

Posted on by Daniel Hinds
Categories: Copywriting

Today I want to talk about a writing gimmick that I think we’ve all been guilty of at one time or another: using complex words to try and sound a little more intelligent. It’s a tempting thing to do, isn’t it? You sit there, reading over your simple prose, and your thoughts turn to the performance enhancing drug of the literary world (the thesaurus.) All you have to do is crack it open and suddenly, instead of worrying, you’re perseverating. Boom! It turns out that this kind of rampant thesaurus use may do more harm than good in the long run though, for both your search engine optimization and your audience.

Lets take a look at why.

To illustrate this point, we’re going to look at a study from a Daniel Oppenheimer, winner of the Ig Nobel Prize.

Daniel Oppenheimer

The study has a lot of examples, and if you want to read them all, you can check out the full version here. We’re going to focus on sections 2 and 3.

In section 3, Daniel had a thesaurus program crawl over some papers submitted by graduate students. The program found complex words like “satisfactorily” and switched them out for their simpler synonyms like “well.” He then had another group of Princeton University students read both versions of the paper (original and thesaurus-edited) and rate the intelligence of the authors. Overwhelmingly, they rated the simpler versions of the papers as more intelligent and concise.

In section 2, the same graduate students were given two different versions of a work by Descartes. Both versions were translated directly from the Latin, but one used the complex translation for maximum accuracy and the other used a simple translation for readability. When rated by the grad students, they found that the simpler version was not only more readable, they rated the simple version author as more intelligent.

What does this tell us?

When you use big words, even when they are justified, you often times look like you’re trying too hard. We all know that guy who throws in random $10 words, and we’re never impressed. Don’t be that guy.

I’m not advocating you write like a child, and I’m not saying the general public is too dense to understand the polysyllabic (see how much faith I have in you), you just need to write for your audience. That means when you’re writing web content for your site or for SEO, you want it to be easily readable. If you’re writing a treatise on philosophy people will be willing to wade through some language if it enhances the meaning, when you’re writing about the services you offer, simpler is better.

To put this whole thing in a simpler light, we can always turn to the King:

“Any word you have to hunt for in a thesaurus is the wrong word. There are no exceptions to this rule.” – Stephen King