When I think about how I got my start in writing and found my passion, my most vivid memory depicts my high school journalism teacher screaming “There is no excuse to use exclamation points!” at the frightened freshman class. He terrified me, but I became a better writer. Why? Because it’s difficult to forget something if it’s presented to you at a loud enough volume. I still use exclamation points, though.
After applying the style tips I’ve gathered throughout the years, I’ve found myself using them in conversations as well.
The concept of thinning out the fluff from a piece of writing is my favorite. We’ve all heard people go on for what seems like half an hour explaining something when it could have taken them half the time to do so. My go-to phrase when I experience this with fellow writers: “Elements of Style by Strunk & White. Omit needless words”. If you can condense your idea or story, do it. Give the reader or listener the instant gratification. More likely than not, they’ll get a better understanding what you’re trying to say this way.
This brings me to my next style tip for conversations: avoid using complex words or foreign languages. Writers use this for the same reason we think it’s best to use foreign languages. Just like the concept of “omit needless words”, the point is to make your message as clear as possible.
In high school, I had a teacher who thought he had a degree from Harvard, but reality told a different story. He used unnecessarily complicated words and vague phrases and never explained what they meant until it was time to complete an assignment. Is it just me, or is googling your teacher’s choice of words an interactive part of lectures these days? I couldn’t continue listening until I found out what he was talking about, and lost bits and pieces of the message.
When people use fancy words for no reason, I feel like Hemingway talking about Faulkner.
“Poor Faulkner. Does he really think big emotions come from big words? He thinks I don’t know the ten-dollar words. I know them all right. But there are older and simpler and better words, and those are the ones I use.”
If your audience isn’t bilingual, why say, “She was a bona fide expert in American history” when you can replace it with “genuine” or “respected?” Sure, you might sound smarter or like you have a master’s degree from an Ivy League school, but you risk the listener feeling uncomfortable and unable to keep up with the conversation if they’re not familiar with the term.
It’s like when you go to the doctor and they explain the problem, and then you have to say something along the lines of “So what exactly is wrong with me?” or, “Sorry, I don’t speak doctor.”, and then they dumb it down so you can actually take steps to get better. The average patient doesn’t have a medical degree and therefore doesn’t know all the jargon.
Finally, let’s talk about conversation length versus quality. As long as it holds together, a paragraph may be of any length — a single, short sentence or a passage of great duration. The same can be said for an idea or a conversation. There’s no standard for how big an idea has to be or how long the conversation must go on.
I could break the paragraph right here, for example.
Sometimes you have a quick thought that needs sharing. It’s perfectly fine to make the conversation short and sweet. Avoid the small talk if it’s going to cause you anxiety. After all, the fluff will distract from your main point. When speaking about something important, be short, sweet, and to the point.
“I enjoyed my time at the tea party, but not at the dinner.” Gives the same basic idea as “I savored my time at the early afternoon tea party, but the dinner portion of the party was certainly not as pleasant.”
We’re all communicators by nature, but sometimes we forget to embrace the comma, pause for a minute, and re-work our thoughts into words. There might not be an “Elements of Style” for life, but how we write about it is a pretty good place to start.