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Simple Words Work Best

by Bill Lampton, Ph.D.

A few days ago, I was walking near an office building and I saw this sign on the lawn:

Experimental Turf Area
Please Avoid Pedestrian Traffic on Turf

Honestly, that’s what the sign said. My immediate reaction: KEEP OFF THE GRASS has worked quite well in getting that same message across, for many years. So why say so much more?

Best selling novelist James Michener used basic language. In his marvelous book about his life and writing career, The World Is My Home, he made one recommendation in two words: write simply. He explained: “I try to follow the pattern of Ernest Hemingway, who achieved a striking style with short, familiar words.”

A superlative scholar throughout his life, Michener acquired a large vocabulary; “but I never had a desire to display it,” he observed. He continued, “Good writing consists of trying to use ordinary words to achieve extraordinary results.”

On this point, Michener tells about Somerset Maugham, a revered novelist whose career ended as Michener’s began. Maugham said he started a notebook when he decided to become a writer. He jotted down words with nice sounds—big, impressive words. Years later, he reviewed his list, and realized he had never used a single word from his collection.

To quote Michener again: “No writer has to use all the words he does know.”

James J. Kilpatrick, a syndicated columnist and respected writing instructor, agrees with Michener. “What is a fundamental principle of writing?” he asks. “It is to convey a message.” Kilpatrick says the writer’s art “lies in stringing the right words together artfully.” By artfully, he means without showing off.

To assure simplicity, write your first draft of a:

  • Memo
  • Letter
  • Article
  • Email
  • Press Release
  • website page
  • Job description
  • Performance appraisal
  • Instruction sheet
  • Consulting proposal
  • Sales contract
  • Annual Report

or anything else. Then spend as much time reviewing and editing as you did writing. Mark through pretentious words and phrases. Look for the most common words people prefer. Almost always, they’re available.


  • Instead of fortuitous, use lucky
  • Instead of prevarication, use lie
  • Instead of optimal, use ideal
  • Instead of feasible, use possible
  • Instead of peruse, use read
  • Instead of interrogate, use question
  • Instead of altercation, use argument
  • Instead of surrogate, use substitute

Your next steps

When others use words that confuse or annoy you, jot those words down. Then make sure you don’t use them in your speaking or writing. When you absolutely must include words and phrases from your professional jargon, accompany them with brief definitions.

Keep this in mind: Simple words work best.