Have you ever read a sentence and wondered what it was trying to say? Ever gotten hung up on a word that felt out of place because the meaning of the word didn’t fit the context? When was the last time you spotted a word that was unnecessarily repeated throughout a page, chapter, or book?
There are two sides to any piece of writing. The first is the message, idea, or story. The other side is the craft of stringing words together into sentences and using sentences to build paragraphs. Adept writing flows smoothy and makes sense. Readers shouldn’t have to stop and dissect sentences or get hung up on words that are repetitive or confusing.
Which is why word choice is such an important skill for any writer to possess.
Common Word-Choice Mistakes
The right word can make or break a sentence. If we want our prose to be rich, vibrant, and meaningful, then we need to develop a robust vocabulary. As we write, revise, and proofread, there are plenty of common word-choice mistakes to watch out for. If we can catch those mistakes and fix them, we’ll end up with better writing:
Repetition: When the same words and phrases are repeated in a short space, they act like clichés. They become tiresome and meaningless. Some words have to be repeated, especially articles, prepositions, and conjunctions. If we’re writing a story set on a submarine, the word submarine (or sub) will get repeated frequently. That’s to be expected. However, repetitive descriptive words get monotonous. Every girl is pretty, every stride is long, everybody taps their keyboards. The fix: look for words that can be replaced with synonyms or alternative wording and avoid using the same descriptive words over and over again.
Connotation: With all the synonyms available, choosing the right word can be a challenge. Each word has a meaning but most words also have connotations, which skew the meaning in a particular direction. Connotations are implied or emotional meanings that overlap a word’s official meaning. If your character is going home, there is a much different implication than if the character is going to her house. The fix: when choosing synonyms, consider the underlying meaning and emotional flavor of each option.
Precision: The best word choices are specific. One word will be vague and nondescript while another will be vivid and descriptive. Consider the following sentences:
He wrote a poem on a piece of paper.
He wrote a poem on a sheet of vellum.
The second sentence is more visual because the word choice (vellum) is more precise. The fix: whenever possible, choose the most precise word available.
Simplicity: Readers don’t want to have to run to the dictionary to get through a page of your writing, and most don’t appreciate the haughtiness that erudite writing evokes. If you’re writing to a highbrow audience, then by all means, feel free to pontificate, but to reach a wider audience, make your language accessible. The fix: check your text for rare and long words, and if you can replace them with more common or shorter words, do it.
Musicality: Sometimes, word choice comes down to musicality. How does one word sound in your sentence as opposed to another? If you’re trying to choose between words like bin and container, you might make your decision based on which word sounds better in the sentence. The fix: read sentences and paragraphs aloud to see how different words sound.
Thoughtful Word Choices for Better Writing
Whether you agonize over word choice while you’re drafting or during revisions, there are some incredibly useful tools for making word choice a breeze. In addition to using the tools that are at your disposal, consistently working to expand your vocabulary will do wonders for improving your language and word-choice skills:
- The thesaurus and the dictionary are your friends. Use them (especially the thesaurus).
- Read voraciously. Nothing will improve your writing and your vocabulary as well as the simple act of reading.
- Read and write poetry. Poems are full of vivacious words. You’ll develop a knack for word choice and grow a bountiful vocabulary if you study a little poetry.
- Play word games like Scrabble, Scattergories, and Words with Friends, which force you to actively use your vocabulary.
- Sign up for Word of the Day and commit to learning 365 words over the next year.
Have you ever gotten frustrated by reading a book that was peppered with poor word choices? Do you make a conscious effort to use the right words in your writing? How far will you go to find the perfect word for a sentence? Share your thoughts on how thoughtful word choices result in better writing by leaving a comment, and keep writing!