Fine-Tuning Your Descriptive Language to Make Your Content Soar
By: Oliver Higgs
When it comes to using flamboyant or elaborate language in your writing, how much is too much?
One of the trickiest parts of writing for brands and businesses is knowing when to get “fancy” and when to keep things simple. Whether it’s a bylined article, an e-book, a blog post, or a press release, understanding where to draw the line between simple, straightforward language and more extravagant description can be a challenge.
There’s a lot that goes into voice and word choice, including who your audience is, the publication or platform you’re writing for, and the context and content of the work itself. So much of your rhetorical style—including the rhythm of your writing and specific verbiage you use—will be dictated or at least influenced by those factors.
Your overriding goal is always to make your point or share information in a clear and straightforward manner. But no one wants to read an instruction manual—their eyes will glaze over, their brains will tune out, and they may even eventually just quit reading. You’ve lost them.
Using more evocative descriptive words or more elaborate phrasing can make your work more engaging, can help you avoid repetitive or uninspired phrasing, and can convey shades of meaning with nuance that might otherwise be absent or misinterpreted. It can generate interest and add needed complexity. Most importantly, it can make your writing more fun to read, drawing the reader in and helping them connect to the story you’re telling.
Adjectives are the most common battleground for making decisions about utility versus descriptive power or narrative interest. Writing that something is interesting is fine. But saying it’s compelling is better. Good is a mushy, ambiguous and snooze-inducing word. Words like superb or high-quality are not only more dynamic, they can actually be more specific. Describing an object as big might do the trick. But it’s a little bland and vague. Depending on what you’re trying to say, oversized or colossal might be more effective or accurate.
Whether you’re selling a product or an idea, make sure your word choice reflects the passion you have for the topic—or the passion you want to instill in your readers. Consider the following example of two sentences, both making the same point:
- “The new version of this software includes several new features.”
- “The updated platform offers a range of powerful and sophisticated new tools.”
The first version gets the same basic information across, but the second version really sells it. Version one is clear, but kind of…boring. Version two? My interest is piqued and I want to know more.
So, the fancier the better, right?
Not so fast.
Your thesaurus (or, more likely, thesaurus.com) is a great tool. But it shouldn’t be a crutch. Big words aren’t always the best way to describe big ideas. While you want to give your writing enough spice to bring out the flavor, you don’t want so much heat that it overwhelms the palate.
Because language that is too flowery, overly formal, or unnecessarily complex won’t clarify or compel—it can actually do the opposite: obscuring the content of your writing and making your message more opaque and less likely to resonate with readers.
A better metaphor than food and flavor might be clothing. Think of your writing like fashion. How someone dresses can tell you something about that individual: in its own way, an outfit is also telling a story. Sometimes a little something extra—some fashion-forward flair or an interesting accessory—can make both an outfit (and, by extension, a person), seem more interesting. It can make people sit up and pay attention. A casual glance might turn into real interest.
If you take it too far, however, fashion becomes farce, and that attraction turns into a distraction. Someone dressed in an outlandish outfit or in comically garish or mismatched clothes is likely to get attention for all the wrong reasons. The outfit becomes the story, not the person wearing it.
Treat your writing like your wardrobe: try to stay sharp, but don’t overdo it.
Never lose sight of the fact that writing isn’t an abstract exercise. It’s communication. Sharing or explaining ideas. Storytelling. If there’s a particular word or turn of phrase that makes that story more interesting, more accurate, or more impactful, then go for it.
But never feel like you have to use big words or fancy language to make your writing effective or engaging.