Secrets Of Good Word Choice

Writing is made up of words and all words have meaning. If a string of letters on a page means nothing, it’s gibberish and should be pruned out as soon as possible. Beyond textbook definitions, words carry connotations — side messages that are implicitly communicated beyond the literal meaning.

The words “doctor,” “healer,” “medicine man,” “medical practitioner” and “doc,” for instance, all carry a similar meaning. When used in writing, though, they each paint a different context. “Doctor” is casual and straightforward; “Healer” conjures images of faith healers; “medicine man” feels like it came out of a voodoo ritual; “doc” connotes a personal relationship; and “medical practitioner” feels formal and clinical.

One Word Makes A Difference

You can change the meaning and implication of a sentence by changing just one word. Even out of a 25-word sentence, that single update can turn the whole thing upside down.

Take these two sentences, for instance, where a single word change creates a notable difference:

“Let’s see a movie.” (connotation: an invitation to see any movie)
“Let’s see that movie.” (connotation: see a specific movie that you’ve talked about previously)

Choosing Verbs

Verbs define the action in a sentence. They decide whether the woman being described cries, weeps, sobs or sheds a tear. They tell the reader whether an event dents, hurts, shatters or destroys a man’s hope of redemption. Strong verbs bring vibrancy to an otherwise straightforward statement, giving it an element that will grab the reader’s attention.

As a rule, always use active verbs whenever it’s appropriate, reverting to passive verbs only when absolutely necessary. The various forms of “to be” are the most commonly used verbs in the English language, so it’s only normal that they appear in your sentences. Every time you write in the passive form, though, always consider if an active verb can be used in its place — doing so can help raise the quality of your writing immensely.

Light verbs, which are general words with many possible meanings, are fine, provided you can set the proper context. It’s best to avoid them, though, if you place serious value in clarity with regards to your writing.

Specific and Tangible

Want to be sure you’re choosing good verbs every time? Evaluate your verb choices using two criteria: (1) they should be specific; and (2) they should be tangible. That is, you want the action to be as precise and as meaningful as possible, with no room for the reader to misunderstand what the action is.

Same goes when picking words to use as nouns, adjectives and adverbs. The more exact and concrete your choices are, the more effective they will at conveying your message. Vague word choices, after all, will only force readers to put in twice the effort trying to figure out what you mean.

Repetition

Repeating words isn’t necessarily a bad thing. A lot of the time, we repeat words because it’s necessary to do so. Repetition becomes a negative, however, when it ends up stealing the reader’s attention away from the topic. This kind of repetition often hangs in the mind of the reader such that they become conscious at some point that you’ve been repeating yourself a little too much. And when the repetition continues, it just ends up being distracting.

If you like going by feel when you write (as some folks do), then feel out whether any repetition sticks out. Those are the ones that will likely stick out to the reader, as well, causing them to focus on the repeated items, rather than the message you’re conveying.

The more unusual a word, the more it will stick out when repeated. That’s why you’ve been taught to use pronouns instead of writing out a person’s name every single time. You’ll get a lot of leeway repeating common words without alerting the reader. Do it with the more unfamiliar items, though, and it starts toeing the line to sounding repetitive.

One way to avoid this is to use variations of any word or phrase that needs repeating. How? By finding synonyms from a thesaurus, coining a new term, using figures of speech and using labels in its place. This approach makes the necessary repetition a lot more elegant and a lot less noticeable.

Transitions

Transitional devices are necessary for fostering cohesion and flow. Like every aspect of your writing, though, you need to watch your choices in transitional elements.

  1. Use a wide range of transitional words and phrases. Avoid using the same transitions throughout your writing, especially formulaic ones, such as “first, second, lastly.”
  2. Stay away from awkward “there” expressions. Starting a sentence with “there” brings an explicit transitional function that makes it natural for introducing new or related items to a discussion. Relying too much on the same device, however, leads to repetitiveness that often ends up being awkward.
  3. Minimize topic shift transitions. This includes items like “speaking of,” “with regards to,” and “another thing to note,” all of which are designed to introduce a new topic. While perfectly valid, they’re just a shade better than just diving into a new topic without warning. It’s better to use a more meaningful transition.

Gender-Neutral Language

Even if you frown at political correctness, you will want to keep your language neutral with regards to gender. Simply put, gender-biased language leads to a piece that sounds overwhelmingly tilted to one side of the scale. People today are used to reading gender-neutral material, as most every professional publication — even online — follows it in their style guidelines. Deviating from that makes your work look awkward and amateurish.

Clichés

If you’re going to use a figure of speech, such as a metaphor or a simile, make sure it’s not some old tired cliché that’s been around before you were born. While perfectly valid as elements of the language, their overexposure through the years have left many readers weary of them. They may have made written material from decades ago sound swell, but they’ll either register next to nothing in terms of impact or, worse, annoy the heck out of your reader when employed today.