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“Good” isn’t so good

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Compare these two sentences: “The experience will be very painful,” vs “The experience will be excruciating.”

First question: Which gets the point across more effectively?

Second question: Which would you be more likely to read in a typical piece of business correspondence?

In business writing as in any other writing, the writer’s goal is to control the reader’s thinking. As a consequence, “Excruciating,” I’d advise, is far more evocative than “very painful.”

Third question: Did you happen to spot the unfortunate use of passive voice?

“We’ll find the experience excruciating,” improves the message further. Why?

If you think active vs passive voice is a mere academic nicety, take another look. The active voice version … “We’ll find the experience excruciating” … makes the message personal.

“The experience will be excruciating” assigns the agony, not to the reader, but to some unspecified third person the reader doesn’t necessarily care about, and therefore fails to establish the urgency the writer would like her to feel.

In business writing as in any other writing, word choice matters. And no, I’m not suggesting you always choose the most vivid and extreme alternative listed in Word’s list of synonyms. I’m suggesting you always choose the most precise alternative. In the case at hand, your choices range from “unpleasant,” “twinge,” and “discomfort” at the mildest end, “ache,” “pain,” and “hurt” somewhere in the middle, and “agonizing” or “torture,” along with the aforementioned “excruciating” when extreme verbiage is called for.

Think of the English language as a collection of drill bits. Lots and lots of drill bits, in a wide variety of diameters and lengths, and composed of an astonishing variety of alloys.

When the time comes to drill a hole in a cinder block wall, you would, I trust, choose a masonry bit that’s the right diameter for the job, not the first bit that comes to hand.

Make the same effort when choosing words for every email you send, not to mention every report you write and PowerPoint slide you design.

But back to “excruciating” vs “very painful.” I’m going to temporarily remove “excruciating” from the dictionary. You now have only two choices: “We’ll find the experience very painful” and “We’ll find the experience hurts a lot.”

“Very painful” wins — not because it evokes the desired reader reaction better, but because it better evokes the desired reader reaction regarding who you are. “Very painful” is more businesslike than “hurts a lot.”

The Oxford English Dictionary lists 171,476 words in current use. Divide these into three categories: Words you use, words you understand but don’t use yourself, and words you have to look up if you care enough to invest the time.

For example: We all use “bad,” routinely. It’s a category 1 word. Compare it to “wretched,” a word few of us include in our day-to-day conversations with friends and colleagues, even though it’s precise, evocative, and we all know what it means.

It’s in category 2. Sadly, it should probably remain there, at least during office hours — it fails the Is-It-Businesslike test. Use it and it calls attention to itself instead of to the situation you’re describing.

But it’s better than “elegiac” and “odious,” — category 3 words. Use them and you’re just showing off. Just as you’d be showing off if, on the opposite end of the spectrum, you chose “licit,” an entirely legitimate synonym of “legitimate,” but not a licit choice when writing your next business case.

The point, in case all of these synonyms obscure it, is that every time you communicate with anyone, you have two goals. You want them to understand whatever it is you’re communicating about the way you understand the situation. And, you want them to understand who you are and how you think. If you think in terms of personal brands, you want your audience to think of you as you’ve defined yours.

Without a doubt, careful word choice requires more effort than inserting the first words that come to mind. And so, a suggestion, borrowed without permission from Agile philosophers the world over: Start by defining a Minimum Viable Product for your writing improvement.

With that in mind, here’s my suggestion for your writing MVP: Starting with your your next email, choose superior alternatives every time you’re about to type “good” or the grossly overused “great.”

Choosing better alternatives to “good” might not make your writing fantastic.

But it’s a good start.


Comments (18)

  • Bob,
    Well said! It’s about time that someone in Technology pointed out the value of effective communication. For a while, I had taken to editing all communications that emanated from my IT team.
    Perhaps you have followed StarTribune columnist Stephen Wilbers. I took an Effective Writing course from him at the University of Minnesota this fall. It was like drinking from a firehose! I thought that I was a fairly competent writer, but Wilbers helped take me to the next level.
    Hopefully more members of the Technology will heed you and Stephen’s advice, so they can begin to communicate more effectively.

  • Enchanted with this piece! However, it is odious that you would consider ‘odious’ a category 3 word! [smiley face] Part of my personal brand is to eschew banal language, in writings where showing off is de rigueur (such as social media posts). ‘Odious’ is like ‘wretched’ – category 2, which fails the Is-it-Businesslike test.

    • Although I agree fully with your intentions, I have to take exception to what you have labeled “passive voice.” It requires using the past participle, not the present participle. You have a lot of company.

      • According to Dictionary.com, “A verb is in the passive voice when the subject of the sentence is acted on by the verb.”

        With active voice, the subject of the sentence is the actor. So, “John hit the ball” is active voice. “The ball was hit” is passive voice; note that it obscures the actor. This can be fixed: “The ball was hit by John,” but it’s still flabby.

  • Is ‘extant’ a category 2 or category 3 word? I used it in a memo several years ago, and my boss mocked me for it, as I assume he didn’t know the meaning. I explained that it fit the context perfectly, while he thought I was showing off.

    • I’d put it in category 2 but pretty close to the border. I’d probably avoid it because it’s close enough to “extent” to be mistaken for a typo.

      Just me. What does anyone else think?

  • Delightful read, Bob. “Licit” is one of those words whose opposite (“illicit”) is better known – at least in India, where many states that prohibited alcohol used the phrase “illicit liquor”. Another is the late, great George Carlin’s example of the opposite of “disgruntled” (“gruntled”).

  • Musing on “The experience will be very painful,” vs “The experience will be excruciating.”.

    Consider “This will hurt”. “The experience” is almost a passive object in your example.

  • I think a lot of it depends on your audience. “Extant” is a regular word to me but I view it as category three to my casual acquaintances and category 1 to my friends. Many folks are well-read; most are not.

    And as far as goals of writing are concerned, you sometimes want the reader to understand who you are and how you differ from them and from other people.

    But if you’re trying to persuade, you want folks to think you’re like them. Since the normal everyday vocabulary is 1500 words, choose the 1501st word carefully. You don’t want to use hifalutin words but you may want to use the word “hifalutin” to get the general public on your side.

  • I recall a 30-minute exercise at school in 1970 (3rd grade) in which we had to come up with a better word for “get” or “got” in a dozen or so sentences we were given. I still ecshew (category 3) the category 1 words get & got to this day in the reams of written material I generate.

  • Damn – eschew!

  • Having read your column carefully, I’m feeling extraordinary pressure to write this comment well!

    It hurts a lot to say it, but I think you missed the mark on a key point.

    Too much business writing uses indirect, flat, or otherwise ineffective language when plain language would do a better job. I fear writers will take your recommendation to favor businesslike language as a license to beat around the bush.

    I won’t regale you with examples of the horrible stuff I’ve been reading lately, but trust me, I’ve seen some pretty bad stuff that tries to be businesslike. Haven’t we all? Perhaps I’m bold, but I’m not too shy to say “mishmash” in a business document:

    “The Department has historically taken an ad hoc approach to selecting its systems and has not set standards, nor planned well for maintenance, upgrades, and replacement. As a result, the current state is a mishmash of systems on a variety of technologies that fails to meet business needs.”

    I think that’s effective without tarnishing my brand. Perhaps that’s because I fancy myself a plain-talking straight-shooter. I suppose I’ll find how effective it is when I find out whether the argument for adding an Enterprise Architect position in the budget carries the day.

    Thanks Bob for a thoughtful and thought-provoking article.

    • Well, at the risk of offending a group of folks I should cater to, plain language and enterprise architecture don’t seem to coexist on this plane of existence.

  • Target audience provides some guidance in word choice, too. For example, when writing user manuals strive to stay within a 6th grade reading level.

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