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Speaking volumes: How six weeks of silence prepared me for UX writing

I learned frugal language drives better post-tonsillectomy communication — and UX.


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Alana Fialkoff

3 years ago | 4 min read

You’ll speak over 123,000,000 words in your lifetime. Today alone, you’ll say over 7,000.

This tally seems staggering at first, until you consider how many daily interactions rely on speech. Most of us navigate our entire day with our voices.

We ask and answer questions; we express gratitude, excitement, frustration. We rant, ramble, and reason, stumbling through sentences that, when put to pen, might make the world’s windiest run-ons. With thousands of words at our disposal, we should be able to communicate just about everything with ample wiggle room…

Except most of us won’t use those 7,000 words effectively.

In normal conversation, we don’t map out syntax before we speak it. Our sentences evolve as we think: they’re traces of our thoughts, crafted in real time. Take, for instance, two sentences I said on a call last week:

I’m excited to see, like, how we can advance this initiative using our community’s varied voices. I think it’ll be super valuable to the strategy going forward, um… to really see where it leads and engage our entire readership in that process.

Like. Um. Really. We fold in these filler words to buy time, but they weaken our delivery. And, more often than not, they raise our word count beyond what’s necessary.

If I were transcribing my spoken words into effective copy, I’d pare them down considerably:

I’m excited to see where engaging our readership leads.

The consequences of loose verbal precision aren’t severe for most of us moving through a typical day. We might take an extra few words to communicate a thought, but real life isn’t Twitter. We don’t have a limited character or word count.

But what if we did?

Earlier this month, I explored how playwriting can inform better microcopy — and in speaking about word limits, a particular play comes to mind. Lemons, Lemons, Lemons, Lemons, Lemons by Sam Steiner follows a couple living in a world where each citizen operates within a strict word count. After reaching a 140-word limit, they lose the ability to talk entirely until the following day.

And while I can’t say I’ve experienced that extreme, I’ve encountered something eerily similar.

I spent almost 3 months battling severe tonsillitis. Being sick, along with my eventual tonsillectomy, confined my communication to Steiner-esque constraints.

Pain was my word count — I’d go days without uttering anything beyond simple phrases. Not better. Yes. Don’t feel good. No. Not hungry. Ow. Often, my sandpapery voice and needly throat restricted my ability to talk altogether.

As someone who identifies as a writer, this limited speech pattern was hell. I couldn’t share my thoughts. I couldn’t excitedly ramble about the latest New Yorker story I’d read or let my voice jump several octaves when the neighbor’s cat decided to visit. I couldn’t read my own poetry just to relish in the sound.

My illness forced me to speak frugally.

Then came my tonsillectomy. And with it, four weeks of complete and utter silence.

I used a text-to-voice app to communicate my needs. At first, I typed them in as I would an actual conversation: full of adverbs, adjectives, turns of phrase. I tried to tell stories, make jokes, and annoy my parents with silly puns despite my silenced state. But each time I hit speak, my typed words proved vulnerable to interruption.

My parents asked questions in the middle of my sentences. They’d challenge my thoughts before they’d heard them through. Where once I’d be able to stop speaking and address their concerns, I had to wait for the app to finish reading, clear the input field, and type again.

We slugged through this cumbersome conversational flow for a week before it dawned on me: in my situation, typing what I’d normally say just wasn’t a usable solution.

From then on, I knew my mission: pinch verbal pennies.

“I think I want some food” became “Hungry.” “The pain rose from a 3 to a 6 today” became “6.” My robotic British voice — I preferred to narrate my suffering à la David Attenborough — spoke in bare minimums. Affirmations. Subjects. Verbs. If it didn’t have concrete purpose, I didn’t say it. Function over flavor.

In the months since, I’ve healed and resumed my wordy ways. But stepping into the microcopy arena made something almost comically apparent:

Most microcopy could benefit from having a tonsillectomy of its own.

Metaphorically speaking.

In lieu of losing your tonsils, here are some key tonsillectomy takeaways you can use to tighten your UX writing:

  1. Use active verbs.
    Don’t leave room for passive voice. Sidestepping passivity trims your sentence and keeps filler words at bay.

Passive: Active verbs are an important part of effectively communicating.
Active: Active verbs support effective communication.

2. Nix the adverbs.
Microcopy isn’t the place for split infinitives. Confidently-wielded adverbs make colorful copy, but plopping them into a UI often causes verbal clutter.

Split: You need to completely fill all the required fields to properly submit your response.
Unsplit: Fill all required fields before submitting your response.

3. Keep it simple.
If your microcopy contains several commas and clauses, you can likely split that sentence in two. Digestible lines drive better user engagement.

Single line: When you write within a UI you should always align your language with your user’s; nobody likes navigating an interface full of unfamiliar references.
Halved and rehashed: Always write with user context in mind. Unfamiliar language complicates your UI.

4. Write for function.
Each word should have a specific purpose and tie to a specific user action. Highlight your draft’s nouns and verbs. Any text without color might be prime for trimming.

5. If you wouldn’t communicate it through piercing throat pain, it’s probably not worth writing.
Remember your worst sore throat? It’s back with a vengeance. Is every word still worth saying through the burn? Shave spare syllables. Pare those lines down to their bare essentials. Condense. Cut. Make them crisp. Micro copy packs a macro punch.

Take these tips. You’ll have what you need to communicate and write with efficiency––no tonsillectomy needed.

This article was previously published for PatternFly, a publication focused on all things open source and UX

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Alana Fialkoff

UX Writer with Red Hat. I have an unhealthy obsession with words. I guess you could say it’s pretty lit. ✍️📚


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