Accessibility of Phrasing


When I was 16, in a creative writing class, I mentioned that a classmate’s story used a lot of big words. Another classmate complained about the big words, and we both got chewed out for it, even though I hadn’t meant it as a bad thing, just an observation.

From that, I learned that people yell at you when you think they shouldn’t use so many big words.

I’m going to talk about people who use too many big words, now.

I learned quite a few new words when I was a teenager by stumbling across one or two I didn’t know while reading. I’d pull out my (pocket-sized) dictionary and learn something new, and it was great.

Have you ever tried reading a scientific study? Like, the actual study, not the dumbed-down version for us non-science peons? There are a lot of words and phrases per sentence that are confusing if you’re not also a scientist. You have to look up basically everything. Every little thing. I tend to give up after the first paragraph.

And that’s where accessible phrasing comes in. Those scientists are writing their reports for other scientists, so they use phrasing that is accessible to their audience. If they were writing it for me, they’d dumb it down a hell of a lot (and that’s what articles do when they describe those studies; they dumb it down for us).

As a layperson, scientific studies and reports frustrate me because they are hard to understand and do not communicate well with me because I am not their audience. The same way my mom was super impressed by my college senior project presentation and how technical it all sounded when it all seemed really easy and obvious to me. (Who doesn’t instinctively understand romanticism and cynicism as philosophical metaphors in literature? So obvy.)

When I write a story to entertain, however, I need my language to be accessible to my audience. Therefore, my word choice needs to reflect that. I feel fine throwing in “big words” here and there, but I don’t saturate my writing with them because that would make my work less accessible (and more annoying). I still LOVE stumbling across new words, myself. It’s rarer these days, so it’s even more of a thrill. I get genuinely excited when I find a word I don’t know and it’s been used well.

When I first started hearing terms like cisgender and heteronormative and so on, I was super confused and a little frustrated because those words were not accessible to me, and there were a LOT of them I had to look up. It had the same effect as science reports, where I had to struggle to grasp a lot of new concepts all at once. (Which doesn’t make me hate science, nor does it make me hate gender and sexuality.) Just like with those science reports, I wanted more accessible language. I needed new terms to be thrown at me a little slower, and I needed context clues to figure them out, and I got none of that. I had to google all of it, and it was tiring, and I didn’t like it.

When articles with gender and sexuality terminology are meant for a different audience than myself, then it’s like those science reports that are meant for scientists, or my senior project that was meant for my professors. It’s not meant to be accessible to everybody, and I get that.

But when you’re trying to communicate ideas and feelings and experiences to someone who doesn’t have that same specialized vocabulary, you need to consider words they’ll understand. If you want to teach us new vocabulary, cool! I LOVE new vocabulary! But throw all of that vocabulary at us at once? In that case, there’s no communicating going on.

You must be realistic about your audience and your goal. When talking to someone who shares your vocabulary, all of your phrasing will automatically be accessible, and it’s not a problem (unless there’s someone like me trying to follow the conversation and getting left in the dust; then, use your best judgment). But when you’re talking to someone who doesn’t share your vocabulary, communication gets a thousand times harder when you don’t account for that. People who are confused and frustrated do not listen. And the point of communication is to be heard and understood.

Don’t lose sight of that.