By Lynn Santa Lucia
Associate Director of Editorial Operations and Strategy
Courage is a word that may initially bring to mind images of battle: fearlessness in a fight to the finish, bravery in the face of danger or difficulty. But if you consider the origins of this word, something shifts in your relationship to its meaning. After all, the root of the word courage is cor, the Latin word for heart. The way poet David Whyte sees it, “Courage is the measure of our heartfelt participation with life, with another, with a community, a work.”
Writing takes courage. That’s because we inherently know that words matter, and that they are exquisite tools for engaging wholeheartedly with the world around us. Whether you are writing to draw attention, deliver a message, or defend an argument, it doesn’t have to be a battle to put the right words together. Here are some tried-and-true strategies that can help you whenever you are wrestling with words.
Use plain English
It’s tempting to sound fancy. Often, when we write for business—be it a report, a white paper, a case study, or even a persuasive email—we freeze up, seeming to forget the conversational language we’d use if we were communicating the same information aloud. In the end, the words read like a foreign language.
Take, for example, this corporate overview: Our cutting-edge solution powers and delivers the critical capabilities required for healthcare transformation.
As a reader, aren’t you left wondering: What exactly is the solution? How does it power and deliver? What are these critical capabilities? What does transformation specifically look like?
An improvement might be this: Company X’s health tracker app helps people with diabetes take the guesswork out of managing glucose levels.
Use words your primary audience (employees, customers, prospects, collaborators) can understand the first time they hear or read them. Employing straightforward language can increase not only customer satisfaction but also reader satisfaction—and will keep everyone’s eyes from glazing over.
Don’t rely on jargon and stale idioms
In his 1946 essay “Politics and the English Language,” George Orwell argues the English written language is in decline whenever, “prose consists less and less of words chosen for the sake of their meaning, and more and more of phrases tacked together like the sections of a prefabricated hen-house.” Nothing uninspired in that prose!
Modern industry jargon may connect colleagues and collaborators, but often just obscures meaning. Take this example:
Some of us aren’t exactly sure what corporate catchphrases bring to the table. And full disclosure: we’re also not convinced they’ll move the needle on mission-critical projects.
When language like “bring to the table,” “full disclosure,” “move the needle,” and “mission-critical” is overused, it starts to sound hollow and lose significance. If you want to write meaningfully, avoid jargon like the plague. Oops! That is, when you sit down to write, determinedly decide not to include worn-out, jargon-laden expressions. It’s probably time to retire them in conversation, as well.
Beware of exclusionary and stigmatizing language
It may not be obvious, but many words we use have roots in oppression, exhibit bias, or stigmatize. Thanks to growing awareness, we’re making word choices that are more affirming and unbiased. Examples of these positive replacement words and phrases include “blocked” for “blacklisted,” “primary bedroom” for “master bedroom,” and “unhoused” for “homeless.”
It is also important to be mindful of using person-centered language to describe disabilities and health conditions, such as “a person with diabetes” versus “a diabetic,” or “a person with a substance use disorder” rather than “an abuser” or “an addict.”
When in doubt, check out these inclusive language guidelines put out by the American Psychological Association. And, if you do make a mistake in your writing—or your speech—be sure to apologize and make a correction, because now more than ever the right words matter.
Pay attention to phrasing
Framing is the specialty of advertisers and marketers. While one advertiser can tout a product’s 90% success rate, a competitor can take the same statistic and correctly call out the product fails 1 out of 10 times.
Words, and the way they’re phrased, have power. Be deliberate in your word choices and the way they are arranged, because each decision will signal the reader to think about your topic one way over an alternative.
Avoid malaphors and mixed metaphors
Writing doesn’t have to be rocket surgery. Wait, that doesn’t sound right, does it? Like that laughable malaphor (when two figures of speech are combined—in this case, “rocket science” and “brain surgery”), the mixed metaphor can derail a piece of strong writing. Readers naturally understand the literal meaning behind metaphors. But the inconsistent imagery of mixed metaphors (the fullback was a bulldozer, flying up the field like an angel) can challenge comprehension, if not acceptance.
So, if you’re writing about the patient journey, for example, it makes sense to call out obstacles along the path to better health. But if you write that the journey is clouded by a sea of obstacles, your reader will likely stop and think—but not in the way you’ve intended.
With these tips in mind, go out and be courageous with your writing! And if you find yourself up a tree without a paddle, know there’s always a professional who can help edit you off the ledge.
Lynn Santa Lucia has more than 20 years of experience developing award-winning editorial and multimedia storytelling campaigns across industries, including healthcare, pharmaceuticals, education, and finance. As associate director of editorial operations and strategy at Encompass, Lynn partners with clients to translate their training objectives into content that educates and inspires engagement. She is the author of Ladies First: History’s Greatest Female Trailblazers, Winners, and Mavericks and Amazons and Hellcats: Groundbreaking Women Who Forged a Path in History.