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Digital Subscriptions > Writing Magazine > June 2017 > THE TEN HUNDRED WORD TEST


Technically precise language doesn’t always make your writing easier to read. Science writer Karl Beecher explores how using a smaller pool of words forces you to consider each one more carefully

Does richer language make for better writing, or are things best kept simple? People have fought over this for years and both sides make good points. Consider that choosing from a small set of simple words can stop you using a better word that means almost the same thing. On the other hand, using the kind of language that few people know might turn the reader off.

I should say up front that, when it comes to writing more serious stuff, I like to keep things simple. I follow writers like George Orwell, who told writers to cut words they don’t need, get rid of words with special meanings, and go for short words over longer ones. After all, the less a reader has to wonder about the meanings of words, the more they can fix their attention on the business at hand. But can you go too far when using fewer words?

The idea

Randall Munroe, the writer of xkcd.com, took this idea and ran with it when he wrote a spin-off book called Thing Explainer. As the simple name suggests, it explains a number of things like ‘the big flat rocks we live on’ or ‘the boats that go under the sea and carry machines for burning cities’. However, all the words in the book come from a set of 1,000 of the most used words in our language. No other words are allowed.

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