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.