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June 20, 2017 AT 6:03 pm

Writing Hacks: The One Syllable Story

Language is a technology. It’s a particularly strange one that’s made of squiggles and sounds and maps of meaning, but like any other technology, it’s hackable. So’s writing.

Some folks worry that they don’t have a large enough vocabulary to write great stories or essays.

But great writing doesn’t require a huge vocabulary. In fact it might be the opposite. From What Makes Hemingway Hemingway?

What we’re interested in isn’t actually raw vocabulary size: it’s the portion of unique words in a given passage, which is a measure called lexical richness. Higher lexical richness means less repetition. (This sentence, for instance, has a lexical richness of 1.00 because no word is repeated.) Lower lexical richness means more repetition. How does Hemingway’s lexical richness compare?

It’s low. His word choice is repetitive. He not only uses shorter words and shorter sentences, he also chooses to use the same words over and over.

And see how “Typical Writing” has the largest vocabulary?

But if we’re looking at Hemingway, it’s demonstrable that great writing doesn’t need to be about size of your the words either:

So pick something that’s important to you. I mean the way your child smiles. I mean the reason you get up in the morning. I mean the thing that keeps you up at night. I mean what makes your heart beat faster or your heart stop or your heart burst with joy.

Now do a free write on that subject using on one-syllable words.

See how much more you can make with less.

Check out previous Writing Hacks!


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