why i don’t do wordsmithing

Old-time blacksmith at work“. . . and then we’ll give you the draft to wordsmith.”

Has a client ever said that to you? I’ve heard it quite a few times over the years. And while I would never contradict a client for using that term, I prefer not to use “wordsmithing” to descibe what I do.

Actually, it’s more than a preference. I emphatically declare (here on the blog, that is) that I don’t do wordsmithing.

Before I go any further, though, I have to make sure I’m clear about one thing. I do appreciate that most clients use the term positively, as an acknowledgment that writing contributes as much to their mission as do development, production, and marketing. In fact, the term often conveys a hint of wonder at the writer’s mysterious ability to forge vague concepts into coherent paragraphs. If you use the term that way, I will not take offense.

Occasionally someone will use the term to imply a form of menial labor that’s best performed by people who are far less important than they. I will take offense at that use — not publicly, of course.

Either way, please understand that I don’t wordsmith. I write.

I’m not splitting semantic hairs or being pedantic here. The difference goes to the heart of what writing is about. Wordsmithing is all about words. Writing is all about meaning.

Take for example the following sentence, which I found on a Federal Aviation Administration website about the agency’s program to reduce the number of collisions between birds and airplanes:

“Over $300 million dollars annually is lost due to wildlife strikes in the United States alone.”

On the face of it, the sentence looks fine. In fact, from a grammatical standpoint there is nothing wrong with it at all. But what does it mean? Millions of dollars are lost how? A mischievous reader (say, for example, me) could easily conjur up images of a gang of outlaw birds that stage fake collisions on runways and then rob planes as they stop.

(If you are a cartoonist, feel free to run with that idea — just please send me a copy or a link.)

Seriously, though, writing is a transactional activity. The reader demands, the writer supplies. And if writing is your business, you have to make sure that you supply what your customers demand. In business, what paying readers demand is to understand.

Wordsmithing, to me, implies an emphasis on the writer — his skill crafting complex sentences, her mastery of the language. Writing implies an emphasis on the reader — his understanding of the message, her comprehension of the data.

The professional goal I strive for is to be considered a “reader’s writer.” But if ever a client were to refer to me as a meaningsmith, I wouldn’t object.

Image: iStockPhoto.com

Author: Paul Lagasse

Paul Lagasse provides expert-to-expert communications services to nonprofit, business, and government clients in the metro Baltimore-DC area. Specialties include science and medical writing, technical report editing, and content marketing.

2 thoughts on “why i don’t do wordsmithing”

  1. “Over $300 million dollars annually is lost due to wildlife strikes in the United States alone.”

    I immediately had an image of hundreds or thousands of birds and animals walking picket lines. Must have the writers’ strike on my brain.

  2. You’ve hit on a good idea, Matt. Picketing birds aren’t going to get sucked into jet engines. The FAA could hire Nick Counter to go around the country standing next to runways like a scarecrow.


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