sprite writes
broodings from the burrow

May 6, 2021

weighing our words
posted by soe 1:32 am

One of the projects I supervise at work involves making short informational videos of 90 seconds or less. That amounts to 200 words on a subject. You can say a lot in 200 words, but you have to choose them carefully.

First, you have to know a lot about your subject (or work closely with someone who does). The less you know, the more you’re able to obscure that fact, intentionally or otherwise, by wrapping them in a blanket of clauses and phrases.

Second, it helps to be able to wordsmith on the go. I am here to declare that your experts are never, no matter how many times you emphasize there are constraints, going to give you which tradeoffs you should make when they edit your text for accuracy. They will only ever give you more words they think need to be included.

Third, people have different styles when it comes to removing words. I tend to get there by wielding a scalpel, cutting a word here, a word there. My colleague approached it with a big kitchen knife, taking whole sentences with her as she went. Both techniques can be mighty to behold, when you watch someone remove a fifth of the words without losing the meaning. And, in the end, the goal is to leave your audience without a clue you excised anything.

Fourth, don’t show off. Because we’re aiming our videos at the general public, our rule of thumb is to keep our language at an 8th-grade reading level or less. That means using shorter sentences, but more to this point, fewer long words. The easiest way for experts to keep their word counts down is to use long words with some frequency. If you’re talking to other people in your field, it’s a great hack! That’s why lawyers and accountants and tech experts exist. Laws and tax codes and computer manuals are written for others who already understand the same basics, even if your specialty is different. Keeping your reading level lower means using more words, but it also means widening your audience.

Fifth and most important, you have to use your thesaurus with care. Remember back in middle school, when you first learned what a synonym was, your teacher said that you couldn’t always substitute one for another in any old sentence? You had to consider context. When making educational materials, you have to also consider the baggage your audience is bringing with them. When you say “prove,” you might be intending to convey that research is overwhelmingly in support of what you’re saying. But if your audience doubts your sources, they may hear “prove” as indicating what you’re saying is in need of defense and extrapolate that to mean there’s reason for suspicion. “Make sure” is twice as many words, but causes way fewer red flags in many people’s minds.

Getting rid of those final words to hit your target is painful and takes time. But when someone watches your video and says it was a great introduction to a topic and made them want to learn more, there’s nothing better.

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