Bloviating on Bloviating
Bloviate is one of those truly great verbs in the English language. Even without knowing the definition, we can picture someone bloviating. We all know people who bloviate and don’t like them very much. People who bloviate use big words and talk about the simplest things in an overblown, exaggerated way. They speak in a pompous style that leaves listeners rolling their eyes. You know, those people who say eeleemosynary when they mean charity.
As William Zinsser wrote in On Writing Well, pomposity is the enemy.
Pomposity is the greatest enemy of writers. As the reader reads, he or she gets to know the writer through the writer’s words. The writer’s words are the only evidence the reader has of who the writer is as a person. Pompous writing tells the reader that the writer is a pompous person.
We avoid spending time with pompous people, like that person who thinks (s)he’s the smartest person in the room and wants to make sure that everyone knows it. Neither do we enjoy pompous writing. Pompous writing distorts the relationship between the writer and the reader: the writer has all the power, while the reader has none. The writer simply can’t be bothered to explain his or her idea to the reader in clear language, putting the burden on the reader to do the hard work of figuring out what’s being said. Pompous writers treat readers as if they aren’t very smart and patronize them, mocking them when they don’t understand the text. Readers resent having to struggle to figure out what the writer wants to say. The reader begins to resent not only the text, but also the writer.
Once lost, readers do not return. I can’t think of many books I’ve abandoned because of pompous writing that I’ve later given a second chance. Some writer-reader relationships simply aren’t worth my time. I have better books to read.
Your goal, as the writer, is to make friends with the reader. The reader cares less about the text than about the quality of his or her relationship with the writer. We want to read writers who we like as people. One way to befriend readers is to write in such a way that the reader feels like an equal.
Clear and concise writing is the easiest way to forge a friendship with readers. The reader can sense when the writer has made an effort to treat the reader as an equal. Straightforward writing tells the reader that the writer cares about and respects him or her as a person. When the readers knows that the writer cares about him or her, the reader will return the favor. Readers will follow writers into strange places and ideas, but only if the writers take care to guide the reader. The writer must take the reader by the hand and lead him or her through the journey.
I’m a recovering pompous writer. When I first started writing, I tried to impress readers with my big words rather than my big ideas. I trolled the thesaurus in search of grandiose words like aureate (adjective: flowery). I hung polysyllabic jargon and specialized lingo on my sentences like Christmas ornaments. I used these words because I didn’t feel confident enough about my ideas, so tried to puff them up with big words. Looking back, I wish I had been brave enough to write about my ideas in clear language. I’ve had to practice quite a bit to reach for a simple words when I long to bloviate. Even now, I’m wondering if this post about bloviation should include some bigger words. Don’t important ideas merit important-sounding language?
I realized that I was annoying readers rather than connecting with them as people. Writing became easier when I considered the reader, rather than just myself as the writer. I discovered a great thing: big ideas are still big when expressed in plain language. Simple language has worked for lots of great writers, from Thoreau to Steinbeck, and their ideas are no less powerful for being expressed through their bare bones writing styles.
Make friends with your reader. Cut the bloat. Avoid bloviating. Limit your histrionics and quash bombastic urges (irony alert!). The thesaurus contains small synonyms as well as big ones. You don’t need to say conceptualizations when you mean ideas.
Talk to the reader in a way that he or she can understand. Readers will thank you for talking to them like the smart people they are. Have confidence that your ideas, expressed in simple language, will impress your readers far more than any amount of bloviation.
Go forth and write without bloviating!