Don’t Damage Your Credibility
Nothing can hurt our credibility as writers more quickly that mistakes. Some people are offended by typos. Others are irritated by grammatical mistakes. But there’s another mistake that can turn off our readers : Poor Word Choices.
Here’s a list of Key Considerations…
Keeping in mind the points below can help you make the best word choices. But consider them as guidelines. ( I do not mean them as rigid rules.)
Some worthwhile reminders…
Make sure that slightly-less-than-familiar word you are about to use is the right one for the job. It’s so easy to skip diving into your dictionary. Words that do not say what we think they do can make us look dumb.
2. Use your Thesaurus but Be Careful.
Always check a word in your dictionary if you are the least bit unsure of its meaning. I love my thesaurus, especially my Roget’s Super Thesaurus, but I guard against any temptation to use a word to impress my readers. The best use I find is locating that word that I need that refuses to surface from memory.
3. Prefer Short and Simple words to Long words.
Let’s face it, those esoteric, professorial, Latinate abstractisms just do not communicate as readily as good old Anglo-Saxon vocabulary.
Compare the next sentence (an example, admittedly, slightedly exaggerated)…
Our assembly has postulated that you and your associates would be advised to proceed to another location with due diligence.
to this one…
We think you should get out now.
To me, the genius of contemporary writing is that is leans toward conversation. Most of us when we talk use those hard-hitting and often delightful shorter words frequently, don’t we?
4. Prefer precise verbs to adverbs.
Notice I did not advise you to avoid adverbs altogether. Sometimes there is just no way around an effective adverb.
Compare the two following sentences…
He ran away quickly from the accident.
He fled from the accident. (The more precise verb fled eliminates the need for both adverbs: away and quickly in the previous sentence. To me, that second sentence is more vivid.)
5. Use concrete and specific words and phrases instead of abstract ones.
Here’s an interesting key: Keep a school or student’s dictionary handy. Even an elementary dictionary works. They will suggest simpler alternatives than learned, pedantic, highbrow, brainy, head-in-the-clouds language that just doesn’t has as much punch.
It was inconsequential. Verses: It didn’t matter.
6. Use Synonyms when they Work Well.
Sometimes it’s a good idea to avoid using the same word to frequently in a sentence or paragraph. Example…
John’s anecdote was amusing, but unfortunately he forgot he told us that story before. (Using the word story instead of repeating anecdote in this sentence, to me, adds a little welcome variety.)
For contrast, here’s a slightly contrary view from the Famous Writer’s School text Principles of good writing (page 122):
“Unless it offends the ear, repetition of a word in a sentence is not a sin, and desperate searching for synonyms is needless when the original word says exactly what the writer wanted to say.”
So this advice calls, once again, for a judgment call. Listen to your intuition.
7. Choose words that are bright, musical and colorful, vigorous, and lucid, and at times even emotional–wherever they work well.
Words like: sunny, scarlet, titanic, sparkling, sadistic, wintry, riptide, whirlpool, sexy, curving, devastating, bombshell, pitiless, crimson, beaming, sad, gasping, crystal, nuclear, bad…
Forget the hifalutin, elitist, pretentious stuff.
8. Precise Nouns are very often better than the vague and the General.
He insisted on bringing his dog into the boardroom.
How about mutt or hound dog or cocker spaniel? Naming the type of dog is more descriptive and vivid.
9. Watch out for overuse of “to be” verbs and the passive voice.
Sometimes “to be” verbs are helpful, but they can be rather boring. Vivid verbs are more alive.
Example: Then there were vicious orcs coming down the mountain toward us.
Compare that example sentence above to this one…
Vicious orcs rushed [or scurried, scrambled, plunged, cascaded, dashed, rumbled…] down the mountain toward us.
Most of the time it’s also wise to avoid the passive voice. George was bitten by the dog. (The subject receives the action, is passive.) Verses: The dog bit George. (The subject does the action.)
However, Roy Peter Clark, in his fine book Writing Tools, 50 Essential Strategies for Every Writer (pages 23-24) points out that sometimes it’s a good idea to use passive verbs when you want to emphasize the receiver of the action–or the victim.
Donations of food, medical supplies, and clothing were shipped out to the remote disaster areas of Uganda. (The emphasis in that sentence is on the donations.)
10. But an unusual, surprising, or even bizarre word, now and then, shouldn’t hurt.
He frowned at me looking like a bull moose.
The guidelines above are certainly not all there are, but they should serve as useful reminders.
How about you? Do you have any word-choice reminders you would include on this list?
Aimed at students:
http://www.ttms.org/writing_quality/word_choice.htm Students again, but good points: