Word Choices To Broaden Your Audience
Whether you’re developing a novel, memoir, self-help book or other content, reaching an audience is no easy matter, given how differently we all perceive the world around us. That creates a challenge when it comes to selecting the best words to meet readers’ needs, as George Bernard Shaw captured so well centuries ago: “The single biggest problem in communication is the illusion that it has taken place.”
Luckily, there’s software nowadays to help check your content’s readability level. But much of effective communication relates to how you approach audiences in general, and word choices in particular. Read on to learn about ways to favor an inclusive tone in your writings, to select more easily understood word choices, and more.
Invite Readers In, Broadly Speaking
Before focusing on authors full time, I helped scientists communicate their research results and viewpoints for more than a decade as a public relations writer at universities, and occasionally do so still. A tendency some have is to use qualifiers like “of course,” or “ as is obvious,” or “a simple way to express this is . . .” These statements are likely meant to prove to colleagues the author already know what’s being shared. Meanwhile, what’s discussed may well be a mystery for some lay readers.
To reach the broadest audience possible, then, it’s best to be careful about language that suggests you’re assuming readers already know something. Doing so potentially shuts down a reader’s interest in what you have to say because they feel sheepish if they don’t know the detail, irritated that you’re talking down to them, or both.
Researchers aren’t the only ones wishing to impress others. But as is often true in life, when you grasp for something too hard in your writings, it will often slip away from you. For instance, if a memoir client asks me for general genre guidelines, I’m more likely to recommend something by Beth Kephart than Mary Karr. Don’t get me wrong, both are gifted teachers, and their works I’ve read, equally good in different ways; but Kephart tries to impress readers with her writing skills less often than Karr does in The Art of Memoir (in which she alludes to her tendency to do this); even though the book’s audience involves novice writers, I worry that Karr’s highly crafted passages could make novices feel like their own writing skills pale in comparison, potentially stymieing faith in their own skills to develop content.
Unless you know your genre favors heavily lyrical writings, you could also turn readers off by stepping too far into purple prose land. For instance, a historical novel I read a while back was well developed in general, but eye rolling at times for word choices such as “unctuous tone” and the statement that “The light limned his profile,” or that a woman “ensconced herself … like a harbinger of doom.” My disconnect may partly be about personal language preferences, but the narrator providing such snippets was a young teen, so the vocabulary felt too adult to be realistic.
Favor More Accessible Language
The concern mentioned above with Karr’s memoir guide gets at a key aspect of reaching readers. The better you define the content’s audience, the easier it is to approach them in ways they’ll connect to. That is, readers of a bodice-ripping romance not only likely have different story expectations than those of a book about sustainable food choices, but differences in what level of sentence complexity and complexity of word choices they’ll anticipate.
The good news is, you rarely can go wrong by sticking with the basic rules of simple, clear communication; that includes using strong verb choices, and selecting active voice over passive voice sentence constructions (in most cases). Take the Harry Potter books, for instance, which appealed to many adult readers, despite initially being written at the language level of kids. Yet I’ve seen many an author use overly formal word choices, such as “antithesis” when something like “the polar opposite” would reach more readers.
Some helpful tools for reaching broad audiences are to:
Review how authors and others have tackled this. For instance, you can see what kind of language was used for different audiences by experts videotaped while explaining the same neuroscience or quantum computing concepts differently when talking to everyone from a little kid to a fellow expert.
Keep the complexity of your content at the average reading level of U.S. citizens, Brazilians, Brits, or whatever primary target audience you want to reach. Research reveals that the average American reads at about a seventh or eighth-grade reading level, for example, with eighth grade being the level set for journalists at many traditional newspapers.
If writing while keeping a reading level in mind feels like “dumbing things down,” remember that people usually connect easier to someone who's talking as if in a private conversation with them, which often involves a more casual style than formal writings. Besides, you would actually be “sharing the stage” with many an accomplished writer by selecting simpler word choices, as cataloged in this overview feature by Shane Snow.
Tolstoy’s War and Peace comes in at the seventh- or eighth-grade reading level, Snow shares, while Ayn Rand of Atlas Shrugged fame writes at the fifth-grade, and Hemmingway’s Old Man and the Sea, is at the fourth-grade level. The keep-it-simple mantra doesn't only apply to something like a novel or an intimate memoir, either; check out these popular nonfiction authors’ capabilities: Sheryl Sandberg of Lean In fame writes at a seventh to eighth-grade reading level; and Malcolm Gladwell of Blink and The Tipping Point fame? Eighth- to ninth-grade.
These authors’ abilities to reach wide audiences fit well with Shakespeare’s take on temperance, as expressed in King Lear: “Have more than you show, Speak less than you know.”
Note that the above advice doesn’t discount the value of varying sentence structures to add energy, or of carefully wrought, lyrical language, which I’ll talk about in a separate post; there are also word choice nuances that come into play when covering something like a character who has health challenges, as I discuss in this post. The same is true about taking care with how you write about groups or cultures outside your own.
Pre-Test Your Writings
Learning how to reach an audience also includes realizing when there are information holes present in your sentences, and logic gaps in the overall story structure. These misses happen because of how complex storytelling can be, and how easy it is to be blind to what hasn’t made it onto the page. Some writers work with author coaches over months to improve their ability to critically analyze their work as it develops, which I highly recommend. For others, writing groups or beta readers may be the first step. Regardless, having a professional editor/book coach (like me) review your developing or finished manuscript is a wise move to ensure your content will meet professionally published book standards.
You can also run your work through a readability checker, with this list covering nine free software options (though I would steer clear of using grammar software listed as the sole tool for grammar checking, if you dig into that too, as it may not catch things like whether you meant to use “here” instead of “hear,” or “feat” instead of “feet”).
Ultimately, considering the language level of your writings is just one other facet of being a thoughtful writer—and who doesn’t want to be in that category!
By Barbra A. Rodriguez
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Review writing tips from the Center for Plain Language: https://centerforplainlanguage.org/learning-training/five-steps-plain-language/
Consider comparative examples of word choices: https://www.enago.com/academy/word-choice-in-academic-writing-tips-to-avoid-common-problems/
Take a closer look at purple, beige, and other wonky prose: https://kindlepreneur.com/purple-prose/