Writing AdviceWriting, Advice
ServiceScape Incorporated
ServiceScape Incorporated
2007

Word Choice is Critical

TechEdit

Words have power. To quote Rudyard Kipling, "Words are, of course, the most powerful drug used by mankind." As with any drug, words must be used carefully, with forethought and precision. Joseph Joubert said, "Words, like glass, obscure when they do not aid vision." As writers our goal is to convey meaning or illicit feelings in our readers, to clarify rather than obscure. Therefore our word choice is critical.

Word choice involves several considerations. Perhaps the most obvious of these is grammar. It is common today to hear entertainers and other public figures use poor grammar, or use a word incorrectly based on some new slang definition. This has become so pervasive that many have adopted the same speech style without even realizing it. It might be a matter for debate whether such a slovenly attitude toward the rules of language is ever acceptable in spoken communication. For written forms of communication, the issue is less ambiguous. While it may be acceptable when writing dialogue in works of fiction, in most forms of writing it is inappropriate. In the same way, words or expressions that are offensive to a particular racial, religious, ethnic, or other group should be avoided. A word of caution is in order in this regard. Even if you would never even consider the use of anything offensive in your writing, you might still give offense. Many expressions have double meanings, one of which is rude or vulgar. Are you aware of these? If there is even a chance that something might be understood in the wrong way, it's best to choose a different expression.

Problems with grammar can also arise out of ignorance. It can be argued that literacy is on the decline, and has been for many years. Sadly, this seems to have affected every facet of society, including those who make their living as manipulators of the written word. In addition, many find themselves asked to express their ideas in a foreign language, often English. This can be a challenge. Even when a writer speaks the second language well, the formal structure required of the written language is stricter and the audience is usually less forgiving. If you belong to either of these groups, what can you do? In a word, read. Read everything that you can get your hands on in that language (obviously trying to choose things that are well written). This is the same principle used when initially learning a language, total immersion. It is the same way that a baby learns to speak. However, when applying this method as an adult, there is a difference. A baby starts from scratch. As an adult with poor grammar, you have to first break your bad habits. One way to accomplish this is to notice the differences in the way you construct sentences compared to the way they're constructed in what you read. Look at sentences the way a carpenter looks at a house. Don't just look at the whole, see the pieces. Don't just hear the meaning conveyed, peer beneath the surface at the structure. This means slowing down, analyzing every word and its place in the sentence. The best way to do this is by reading out loud. Reading out loud can help you to feel the rhythm and flow of the words, allowing you to eventually make them your own.

Another aspect of sentence structure is sentence length. In general, short, simple, concise sentences are more effective than long, complicated, run-on sentences. They have an immediate impact. If you want to make an important point, put it in a short sentence. State it simply. If you do, your readers will remember it. Several short sentences in a row can also be very effective, like multiple quick punches from a boxer. Of course, some of this effectiveness is lost if every sentence you write is short. Variety increases readability.

This is also true for individual words. Instead of always saying that the weather was cold, why not say that it was chilly, frosty, icy, wintry, or glacial? Instead of saying that the man was fat, why not say that he was plump, chubby, stout, or portly? And instead of saying that the new analytical method was more effective, why not say that it was more efficient, successful, useful, or valuable? Using a variety of synonymous words helps to keep your readers interested in what you are saying. It can also do more than this. The English language has a rich vocabulary. Synonyms are words that have the same or similar meanings. Similar is the key word in this definition. What's the difference between being stout and chubby? Is there a difference? As a writer, you'd better know. In addition to its denotation, or dictionary definition, what connotation is conveyed by a word? What feelings does it evoke? For example, the words house and home can both be defined as the structure where a person or family lives, but at the end of a long day, to which would you rather return? Here's a more personal example - which would you rather be, slim or thin? Thin or skinny? Skinny or emaciated? Emaciated or skeletal? These words mean basically the same thing, but the subtle differences in connotation can add shades of color to your writing. Be aware of these shades of color; your word choice will influence the emotions of your readers. Direct this influence by a conscious and careful selection. Instead of saying that the hero walked out of the room, why not say that he stormed out? Instead of saying that the words were painful, why not say that they tore into her heart? And instead of saying that the car crashed, why not say that it was crushed like an empty beer can?

Of course, while an expanded vocabulary is laudable, one must nevertheless remain circumspect that the objectives of one's written communiqué not become ensconced in nebulousness and obfuscation. Why are you writing? Ultimately, whatever you're writing, your goal is communication. Your vocabulary should serve that goal. Your writing should not simply be a canvas for your vocabulary; your vocabulary should serve as a palette with which you paint a clear picture in your writing. Throwing words into your writing that your readers are unlikely to understand is like an artist throwing paint on a canvas at random; individual spots of color may arouse curiosity, but the overall impression will be one of confusion. The first sentence in this paragraph is an example. Congratulations if it made perfect sense to you, but be aware that most readers will find similar sentences frustrating if you insist on writing them. Ernest Hemingway once commented on this subject. He said, "Poor Faulkner. Does he really think big emotions come from big words? He thinks I don't know the ten-dollar words. I know them all right. But there are older and simpler and better words, and those are the ones I use." So use the best words for the job, ones that put your reader in the picture but allow him to understand what he's seeing once he gets there.

It's bad enough to use words that your readers don't understand, using words that you don't understand is worse. If you do so, your readers will lose respect for you. This is especially a problem with non-fiction, since they will begin to wonder whether the accuracy of your writing can be trusted.

Words are tools. You might say that they are the only tools that every living person in the world uses on a daily basis. Learn to use them well. Learn what each tool does and how it can be employed most effectively. Learn the subtle differences between similar tools and how to select the correct one for the job. Learn what combination of tools will be most effective at accomplishing your objective, conveying ideas, feelings, and shades of meaning to your readers, helping them to become immersed in your story, to comprehend your technical writing, and, always, to remember what you have written. By choosing your words carefully and using them with skill, you will become a craftsman who can be proud of your finished product.
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