It’s understandable that every writer struggles with word choice from time to time. There are more than 171,000 words in the English language. There are words that sound the same, but communicate different ideas, words that mean the exact same thing, but have different spellings in British English and American English, words that are almost identical and communicate similar yet distinct ideas, and words that are technically interchangeable but have different connotations.
Word choice is an important aspect of writing that should never be overlooked. It can significantly impact the effectiveness and clarity of your writing. Through the deliberate selection of precise and evocative language, you have the power to craft enthralling and immersive content that captivates your readers / viewers / listeners and leaves a lasting impression. Strong word choice can unlock images, emotions, and more.
The exact language used by the writer to communicate meaning and educate the reader is referred to as word choice. Word choice is the use of rich, colorful, precise language that communicates in a way that moves and enlightens the reader.
Correct word choice is vital. If you use the wrong word to communicate your intended point:
- You weaken your writing and undermine your credibility
- It makes you look like you ignored proofreading your work before submitting
- It makes it clear that you don’t know the correct word.
- It confuses readers when you use the wrong words in your writing, a wrong word can completely alter its sentence’s meaning.
Words are like ingredients: even a small change in the recipe can affect the finished dish. Words have power. They can make you seem intelligent, important, and enthusiastic about what you are saying.
Use words that are both correct in meaning and specific in description
In the sprawling English language, one word can have dozens of synonyms. Words like “good,” “average,” and “awful” are far less descriptive and specific than words like “liberating” (not just good but good and freeing), and “despicable” (not just awful but morally awful).
Consider your word choice to reflect your style
Consider your word choice to be the fingerprint of your writing. Every writer uses words differently, and as those words come to form poems, stories, and books, your unique grasp on the English language will be recognizable by all your readers. Style isn’t something you can point to, but rather a way of describing how a writer writes. . Ernest Hemingway is known for his terse, no-nonsense, to-the-point styles of description. Virginia Woolf, by contrast, is known for writing that’s poetic, intense, and melodramatic, and James Joyce for his lofty, superfluous writing style.
“He rowed up from under the shadow of the bluffs and past the sand and gravel company and then along by barren and dusty lots where rails ran on cinder beds and boxcars oxidized tin set in flats gouged from the brickcolored earth where rhomboid and volute shapes of limestone jutted all brindled with mud like great bones washed out.” Cormac McCarthy (July 20, 1933 – June 13, 2023), Suttree (1979), a semi-autobiographical novel
Tone always sends a message. Everything we say or write has a tone. The tone refers to the attitude or emotion conveyed through writing, while style refers to the way you express your ideas. The words you choose can create a tone that is formal, informal, conversational, authoritative, friendly, professional, etc. This tone can influence how your audience perceives your message, and can even affect their level of engagement with it.
The Importance Of Verbs
Verbs describe what the subject of the sentence actually does. Unless you are intentionally breaking grammar rules, all sentences must have a verb, otherwise they don’t communicate much to the reader. Verbs are something you must focus on when expanding the reaches of your word choice. Verbs are the most widely variegated units of language; the more “things” you can do in the world, the more verbs there are to describe them, making them great vehicles for both figurative language and vivid description.
“Lists, and verbs, will carry you many a dry mile. To imitate or not to imitate — the question is easily satisfied. The perils of not imitating are greater than the perils of imitating. Always remember — the speaker doesn’t do it. The words do it. Look for verbs of muscle, adjectives of exactitude. The idea must drive the words. When the words drive the idea, it’s all floss and gloss, elaboration, air bubbles, dross, pomp, frump, strumpeting.” Mary Oliver (September 10, 1935–January 17, 2019)
Every word you write much have impact
Omit needless words. Vigorous writing is concise. A sentence should contain no unnecessary words, a paragraph no unnecessary sentences, for the same reason that a drawing should have no unnecessary lines and a machine no unnecessary parts. This requires not that the writer make all his sentences short, or that he avoid all detail and treat his subjects only in outline, but that every word tell.
Build moods with word choice
Writers fine-tune their words because the right vocabulary will build lush, emotive worlds. As you expand your word choice and consider the weight of each word, focus on targeting precise emotions in your descriptions and figurative language. What mood do you want to evoke?
You also run the risk of being cliché when you’re not mindful about word choice. Strong word choice builds pictures in the reader’s head in effective descriptive writing. Weak word choice is often called flowery writing or clichéd writing. A cliché is a phrase or opinion that is that it is no longer interesting or effective, and overused, betraying a lack of original thought: “All that glitters isn’t gold”. “He has his tail between his legs.” “And they all lived happily ever after.”
Choose specific details over general descriptions, and natural objects over man-made ones
The most effective writers know that although the world is full of amazing things, their readers’ eyes are going to be drawn to certain aspects more than others, so they try to include these specifics in their writing. For example, instead of saying that my apartment has red walls, yellow floors, and green shutters, someone who is good at describing spaces would say that the living room has red walls, the kitchen has yellow floors, and there are green shutters on the windows.
Bigger isn’t better
When it comes to picking the right word, the simplest is often best. Think about the difference between the words “utilize” and “use.” They mean the same thing, with “utilize” carrying the connotation of using a resource efficiently. Unless “utilize” makes your writing clearer, go with “use.” This same logic applies to any situation where there’s more than one correct word. Generally, the bigger word is the smaller word’s meaning + a specific connotation. If you don’t need that connotation, you don’t need that bigger word.
The best word might come to you later
If you’re in the middle of writing and you just can’t think of the right word for the sentence you’re working on, don’t let that interrupt your flow. Make a note in your notebook and continue writing. You can revisit that sentence. Your fresh eyes are more likely to help you find the perfect word.
Edit with a critical eye
When you’re editing your work, edit with a critical eye tuned to your word choice. In other words, pay close attention not just to what your words mean, but how they work together.
Keep word and phrase choice appropriate to the context
Let word choice in the narrative conform at a certain level to the word choice of the people populating the narrative. Formal narration lacking contractions wouldn’t serve a story about rural folk, nor would colloquial narration serve a story about high society — even if the characters themselves spoke completely in context.
The precise word isn’t necessarily the right word
If the word is confusing or at odds with the context or the atmosphere of the story, a less-precise word might actually be the better choice. A less-precise word can still be the right word.
A metaphor is a figure of speech that describes something by saying it is something else. It’s not actually true but it gives the reader a clearer idea of what it is like. It does so to bring out the symbolism. It helps to explain an idea, but if you take a metaphor at its literal meaning it will sound absurd. An example of a metaphor is “Alex is a chicken”. Literally, this sounds so very absurd. But this is a metaphor which suggests that Alex is a coward, or frightened. It compares or implies that Alex is a chicken to bring out the symbolism. Some other examples are ‘love is a battlefield”, “all the world’s a stage”, “that technology is a dinosaur” etc.
While a simile and metaphor seem to be very similar, there is one basic difference between the two. In a simile, the comparison happens with the help of the words “as” and “like”. A metaphor will not have either of those two words. A simile describes something by comparing it to something else, using like or as. A simile is a useful way to describe something without using a long list of adjectives. It can create a vivid image in the reader’s mind, helping to engage and absorb them. “Their food was tough as old boots” suggests that the food was leathery, dry and impossible to chew.
Alliteration is when words start with the same letter and, more importantly, the same sound. It can be used to create a mood or for emphasis. Alliteration is used to capture the reader’s attention and reinforce a point. Creating a mood, alliteration can set the scene depending on the letters that are used: The harsh ‘r’ sounds in “raging river rapids” help the reader to imagine the brute force of the water.
Onomatopoeia is a word that sounds like what it means. They help you hear what is going on.
- ‘Thud’, ‘crash’, ‘bang’ and ‘buzz’ are all examples.
- Animal sounds are often onomatopoeic: ‘roar’, ‘meow’, ‘moo’, ‘cluck’, ‘oink’. “The bees buzzed around in the garden”. Here the word ‘buzzed’ is indicating the sound coming from the bees.
- ‘The ringmaster cracked his whip.’ This implies the whip making a sharp sound.
- Comic books are full of onomatopoeia. From ‘ping’, ‘wham’ and ‘ha ha ha’ to ‘boing’, ‘squelch’, ‘whizz’ and ‘scoosh’.
- Poems are also full of onomatopoeia
Personification is giving an inanimate object human feelings or actions. Describing objects as if they are people is a way of making sentences more exciting. In Iain Crichton Smith’s short story Home, he uses personification to describe how a street has changed: ‘Instead of small shops, supermarkets were springing up, flexing their huge muscles.’ In Shakespeare’s play, Romeo and Juliet, Romeo compares Juliet to the sun and goes on to describes the moon as being jealous of Juliet’s beauty. The moon can’t really express these feelings, but by comparing Juliet as the sun with the ‘sick’, ‘pale’ and ‘envious’ moon, Shakespeare uses personification to make a striking contrast.
Repetition is when a single word, or a groups of words, is repeated for effect. Repeating a word or phrase in a sentence can emphasize a point, or help to make sure it is fully understood.
- The opening of Charles Dickens’ novel A Tale of Two Cities uses repetition to emphasise contrast between positives and negatives: ‘It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.’
- In F. Scott Fitzgerald’s novel The Great Gatsby, repetition is used to emphasise the size of Tom Buchanan’s apartment, which he visits with the woman he is having an affair with: ‘The apartment was on the top floor—a small living-room, a small dining-room, a small bedroom, and a bath.’
A rhetorical question is a question asked to make a point, rather than get an answer. Rhetorical questions are a useful technique in persuasive writing. As there is nobody to answer the question, a rhetorical question is usually designed to speak directly to the reader. It allows the reader a moment to pause and think about the question. For that reason, they are effective in hooking a reader’s interest and making them think about their own response to the question in hand.
- Shakespeare’s play The Merchant of Venice looks at the divide between the Jewish and Christian faiths. In the following quote, rhetorical questions are used to highlight that all humans are the same regardless of their religion: ‘If you prick us do we not bleed? If you tickle us do we not laugh?’ The answers to these questions are obvious: everyone bleeds if they are cut and most people laugh if they are tickled.
Synonym’s & Antonyms
A synonym is a word, or in some cases a phrase that has the same meaning as another word with regards to the same language. If the meaning is not exactly the same, the words have very similar meanings in the context. As example: The word “jump”. The words leap, bounce, hop are all synonymous to jump, i.e. they have the same (or very similar) meanings.
Now as opposed to a synonym, an antonym is a word whose meaning is exactly opposite to another word, in the same language. For example the antonym for hot is cold, and the antonym for up is down. Antonyms are actually quite useful in the English language. At times it is easy to understand the meaning and the context of a difficult word, by knowing what the opposite of the word means. Take for example the word “mundane” whose synonym is “humdrum”. The antonym for mundane is “extraordinary” or “imaginative”. Now the word mundane has much better clarity.
Figures Of Speech
Language can be used in two ways – literally and figuratively. Literal language is direct and uses the real definition and meanings of words and phrases. But when we talk figuratively, the meaning of any word/phrase will depend on the context in which they are used. A figure of speech relies on such figurative language and rhetoric.
When using figures of speech the words will diverge from their literal meanings, to give a more stylized and specialized meaning to these words.
- “All the world’s a stage, and all the men and women are merely players!”. One of the most memorable lines in the English language, this sentence is a perfect example of figures of speech. They help lend the prose a lyrical and fresh quality. Let us learn more about figures of speech.
Hyperbole in the Greek language translates to ‘excess’. And that is what it does, it exaggerates. We use hyperboles to emphasize the importance or overstate something. This exaggerates claims and statements are never meant to be taken at their literal meaning. They are used to create a strong and lasting impression
An example would be “Since he has been away from home he has gotten as thin as a toothpick“. Obviously, he has not gotten as thin as a toothpick, we only exaggerate to emphasize on how thin he has become. Some other examples are, “Those shoes cost a king’s ransom”, “For the millionth time, clean the kitchen”, “his grandfather is older than the hills”.
A phrase is a group or combination of two or more words. It is a unit of a complete sentence. By itself, a phrase is not a complete sentence, as it does not relay a complete thought. It does not contain the subject and the predicate both, so it is not a clause either.
The length of the phrase may differ from two words to many more words. This does not have any connection to whether it is a phrase or a sentence. For example “old dog” is a phrase. So is “the old, smelly, shivering dog” is also a phrase.
A proverb is basically just an expression or saying based on common sense or experience. They are nothing but common and traditional sayings which explain some truth. They are often metaphorical in nature. The origin of most common proverbs generally lies in local or universal truths and principles.
The main characteristic of a proverb is that it explains a truth or principle. This truth can be from diverse fields like human experience, history, advice, etc. They can also be philosophical in many ways.
The origin of many proverbs lies in historical, religious and literary texts. Many others have no known origin and arise from common sayings in local languages.
- Birds of the same feather flock together – people with common characteristics always end up together.
- Out of sight, out of mind – once you lose sight of a thing, you can forget it altogether.
- All is well that ends well – everything is acceptable as long as the ending is favourable.
- Too many cooks spoil the broth – plans often fail when too many people work on it together.
Tips for choosing the right words in writing
- Consider the audience you’re addressing – Before you write, consider who your audience is, and what they are likely to understand.
- Use active voice – Using an active voice can help make your writing more engaging and direct. It also helps to clarify who is doing what, making your writing clearer and easier to understand. For example, “The cat chased the mouse” is more direct and engaging than “The mouse was chased by the cat.”
- Avoid cliches and jargon – Cliches and jargon can make your writing feel stale and unoriginal. Avoid using overused phrases like “think outside the box”, “the grass is greener on the other side”, “what goes around comes around,” and so on, or technical jargon that may be unfamiliar to your audience. For example, instead of saying “digital transformation,” you might instead say “modernize your business” or “upgrade your technology”. Choose words that are fresh and try to express your ideas in your own unique way.
- Use strong verbs and adjectives – Verbs and adjectives are the building blocks of effective writing. They can help to convey a particular tone or emotion, making your writing more vivid and memorable. For example, “She sprinted to the finish line” is more engaging than saying, “She ran to the finish line”, or instead of saying, “she walked slowly,” you could say, “sauntered” or “strolled”.
Increase your vocabulary
The more words you have in your vocabulary—both your passive and active vocabularies—the better equipped you are to make strong word choices when you write. There are lots of ways you can build up your vocabulary:
- Read books of a variety of classic and contemporary authors to be able to compare
- Roget’s International Thesaurus is definitely a writer’s best friend, instead of relying on cyberspace, paging through a Thesaurus in search of the right word will result in an exciting exploration in search of the perfect word.
- There’s also the Penguin Rhyming Dictionary (ideal for poets), the Collins paperback Thesaurus, a creative wordfinder that includes over 300 000 synonyms and antonyms, The Concise Oxford Dictionary, The Collins English Dictionary, and The ABC of English Language.