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Gobbledegook in Writing: Yes, It’s Real

Big, unnecessary words will scare your readers away, not impress them

Often, we believe well-written articles or stories are the ones peppered in with a bunch of big words. We read through paragraphs full of “grandiloquent” words, most of which simply go over our heads. Wow, they really know their stuff, we think. But most of these words are likely to be completely unnecessary, overused, or too difficult to understand.

According to the Oxford Dictionary, gobbledegook is defined as: “complicated language that is difficult to understand, especially when used in official documents.” In simpler terms, jargon.

If you are writing with a specific audience in mind — say, your colleagues in the same industry as you — then, by all means, use all the jargon you want! But if you are writing for ordinary people (like us), make sure you use your words delicately. That, or you risk scaring your readers away. Or worse, boring them.

Some examples of gobbledegook phrases are:

  • “For all intents and purposes” (this has been used so often that I doubt anybody even knows what it means anymore!)
  • “Promoting synergistic teams…”
  • “industry standard”
  • “destitute denizens of the country” (why not simply the poor people of the country?)

In his book, The King’s English (1906), W. H. Fowler suggests the following tips in writing important essays.

  1. Prefer the familiar word to the far-fetched.
  2. Prefer the concrete word to the abstract. 
  3. Prefer the single word to the circumlocution.
  4. Prefer the short word to the long.

Here are some ways you can avoid using jargon in your writing:

Find Synonyms

This is the most obvious course of action you should take. When a word — or phrase — is stuck in your head and you can’t pluck it out, then look for its synonyms. Often, you will find a better, more comprehensible substitute that will convey exactly what you want to say, without the cost of losing readers.

Rewrite Complex Sentences

An idea that is lost most often stays lost. So write your story like you were planning to, with all your fancy words and jargon! Then edit it. Highlight the sentences that sound too complicated and obscure. Rephrase them. Cross out the ones that cannot be salvaged. This way you don’t forget what you wanted to say while facing this new challenge: avoiding gobbledegook.

Just because you reduce the number of technical terms doesn’t mean your writing loses its meaning. It just becomes easier to understand.

Be Specific

When you write “excellent customer service” or “easy to use”, what exactly do you mean? There are so many ways we could describe a product as “industry standard” or “world class”. Specify what quality makes it special. Impress your readers with conciseness, not gobbledegook.

If the person who reads your work cannot immediately grasp the idea, then you would not have performed well as a writer.

Drop the Archaic Words

While it could be thrilling to use words like “herewith,” “heretofore”, and “perchance” in your writing, those are words that will most likely scare your readers away. Try using more common words and phrases — with this, thus far, perhaps, etc.

I’ve abandoned reading many research papers necessary for assignments because they were so full of clutter. They would lose me within minutes. What is the point of making your work public if nobody can understand it or understand the knowledge you’re trying to share?

Let Someone Read Your Work

You might be confused about what words and phrases will be jargon to your readers. In that case, the best thing to do is let someone else read it before you publish. This could be helpful in many ways: all the mistakes that you overlooked, the repetitions, the grammar errors, the jargon — these would likely be spotted by someone else.

Your objective, even when you’re writing a technical article, is to communicate to your reader what you know, assuming that the reader doesn’t know it. You don’t know if your reader has prior knowledge on the subject, so be cautious. Don’t bombard them with technical jargon. But don’t also assume they’re unintelligent — it’s okay to use the essential technical terms, just as long as you keep it simple.

Ask yourself this question when you write: if you cannot communicate your knowledge using simple, everyday words, then do you even truly know your subject?

June 17, 2021

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