The One On Word Choice

Monday, March 09, 2015

via pinterest
"You've got really good word choice."
A compliment I've received more than once - sometimes on formal papers, sometimes in texts, occasionally even in real life conversation. Usually I simply respond with a "Thank you!" and go on my way, but recently it's been striking me and sticking. Why are people surprised that I put specificity and precision in the choice of my words? Aren't we all? At a very simple level, confusion at least is eliminated with clear language. But even more, in order to communicate elusive things such as emotion, we have to be specific about what words we use.



What strikes me in this is that often I don't feel that what I'm saying is particularly intelligent or useful - it just sounds like common sense in my head. What sounds like common sense to me is, strangely, new to someone else - and what I find to be revolutionary is often something someone else thinks and feels regularly. We are diverse humans: our minds work in different ways, and that is a wonderful, complex thing that makes knowledge a far wider plain than "smart" and "dumb" - but it also means that while what I see and what you see may be the same, our translaton of it is different.

I like to think of Thought as a slab of clay; you have a kit full of words used to shape and change that into any number of different shapes, and depending on what shape you desire, you're going to use different tools, or words. That's word choice - not denotation: conotation.

It isn't, then, about trying to be intelligent or use big, new words. Anyone with a thesaurus and decent memorizing abilities can use big words. It's also not some formula you can memorize - the specific sound patterns and fluctuations of words and sentences sets good words apart from The Rest, and that is something that takes time and practice to cultivate. It's about tasting your words before you spit them out, because the tools you use make an impact - and they are often the difference between two very divergent impressions.

Finally, I begin to look at the web of writers' self-help kits that include telling you how to use words, and it makes me pause. Some do it better than others, granted, but there is something about step-by-step that makes writing seem more like a puzzle, when it is artistry, and it requires trial and error. Some things, specifically word choice, have to be learned by writing and rewriting until you've found your meaning. Often you'll need a second pair of eyes - find them and glean what you can from them - to truly see where your words fall apart from your meaning. Practice, practice practice - you'll never be done, but you can definitely be better. Using words effectively is an art that ought to be learned by everyone and most especially writers; and you don't need a book (or a blog post...) to tell you how - you've got to get in and start shaping.

"You've got really good word choice." I'm a writer. It's in the job description.

11 comments

  1. Loved this post, Carmel! I especially liked the line about tasting your words before you spit them out. :)

    And you're very right--there isn't a formula. It's something you learn by *doing.*

    Word choice also makes a difference in an author's voice or the book's tone. A series I'm reading by Stephen Lawhead has a British feel to it, partly due to the author's choice of words. Another author I enjoy, Andrew Klavan, uses everyday language and simple, punchy structure. It really works because his protagonists are teens in high action circumstances. Anyway, I'm rambling. You've already made a great point without me adding to it. ;)

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    1. Thanks, Tracey!
      You're right: the way in which you deliver words completely changes the style as well as the mood, and is, ultimately, what distinguishes one author's style from another's. Good word choice doesn't have to be elaborate or fancy, it just has to click. (Hemmingway, for example, uses very few words while still portraying a clear, delineated image to the reader.)

      Thanks for stopping by!

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    2. ^_^
      Exactly! I've only read Hemmingway's "The Old Man and the Sea" (which I wasn't overly fond of, but that's besides the point), and yes, his style was quite minimal. It's so intriguing to pick these things apart and discover what creates different moods and styles...
      You're welcome! :)

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  2. This is true. I think a lot of people have trouble choosing the right words to convey their ideas. Maybe that is why they are so surprised. That you can say exactly what you mean. I can fair okay in writing. You get sufficient time to think about what words to use. But in conversation, I'm terrible. Sometimes my words come out as if they had been jumbled up on the way to my mouth. :P

    This post makes me think of Jonas from "The Giver."

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    1. You're right - on paper and online and in our work we have time to think through what we're going to say before we say it, and it most often comes out better. And some people are more gifted verbally than others! I still think it's important to cultivate that skill "so as to not appear so uneducated compared to Jane Fairfax." ;)

      I love "The Giver." <3

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  3. "Some things, specifically word choice, have to be learned by writing and rewriting until you've found your meaning." So true! I really enjoyed this post.

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    1. Thanks, Candance! I was actually a bit apprehensive to post this, but the feedback and conversations spawned have been wonderful. :)

      Thanks for stopping by!

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  4. Yes you are right we don't need a book or any just to write.
    It simply natural.
    Everyone can be a writer.
    What someone need is passion.
    XO

    Check my new post.
    The Bandwagon Chic | Instagram | Bloglovin

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    1. You're right, Zarrah; the use of words is a natural trait that many have simply not cultivated - spend time in improving it, and you find word choice is not so foreign after all, but imbed in all of us.

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  5. It's so true that rewriting is what leads to being able to improve word choice. The more we focus on rewriting our words so that they say exactly what we want them to say, the cleaner our first drafts will come out. And hopefully, through that, effective word choice will become natural.

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    1. I won't beat a dead horse--but you're absolutely correct. :)

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