Word choice

Let's start simply:

There is no perfect word.

If language never changed, then there might be perfect words. But language changes with use; a writer’s use of a word alters a reader's understanding of that word, which means words change as you read them. Words change as you write them as well, including your understanding of how particular words fit into sentences, which words best express your thoughts, and so forth. The changes are, of course, incremental and subtle -- probably entirely imperceptible from one instance to the next. But over time, there's no doubt that a writer's word use changes, and as a consequence, there is no perfect word.

I start with this, partly, to relieve a common writer's anxiety. Sometimes we search and search for just the right thing to say or just the right word to use right here right now. And that struggle can distract us from the important work of expressing ideas, no matter how flawed, before they escape our consciousness.

They say that:

Writing is rewriting.

Getting the idea out is the first, and sometimes most difficult, step. I have found that many new to writing feel as though they need to produce publishable sentences on their first try. This simply isn't true, especially for professional writers; we get ideas on paper, then revise revise revise, then hand the writing off to editors who revise further -- and often it's a team of editors who do the final rearranging and reworking.

We'll say more about this when we talk about structure, but for now, your best bet is to relax. Let the words come out whether you think they're just the right words or not. The words we choose to first record our ideas will not (likely) be the words we use in our final expression.

Building offers an analogy. When building a house, first you frame the house. Then, you start adding finishes, such as wallboard, ceilings, and floors. Once all that is in place, you do final finishes, like mouldings, baseboards, and so forth. It all starts pretty rough, but by the end, you live in a (hopefully) nicely polished home. (The same goes for building a row of flats to building a garden shed: it's rough work first, finish work later.)

Writing is similar in that, at the start, we "frame" our ideas. The words might seem rough; there might be gaps between one idea and the next; it might not be clear how to navigate the structure you're building. But then we revise, and in our first revision we close some of the gaps and improve the flow and structure of our writing. Then, at the very end, we find just the right words -- however imperfect they're doomed to be!

The word choice lesson is this:

We refine our word choices as we rewrite and rewrite.

In summary: the point of this is two-fold.

First, don't worry too much about the first words you choose to express your ideas; they will change.

Second, you may always feel that you could have found a better word to express yourself, but remember that your use of a word alters a reader's understanding of how a word can fit into a thought or sentence. Your writing contributes to changes in the ways that we all use words.

Word choice develops within the context of what you write as well. No hard and fast rules will apply. Word choice is not an algorithm. The tone of your writing helps pick out just the right words as much as your sonic tastes. (Poe developed The Raven algorithmically, but don’t measure yourself that way. And don’t measure yourself by me either. The patient does not become the therapist by the time he’s cured.)

Would you say this word in real life? If no, then don’t say it in print. Nobody will believe you. Worse: they will think you are putting on airs, and that will turn the reader against you. (We are all guilty.)

Are you narrating your story or telling your story? The one is detached, the other is intimate. Tell your story.

* * *

In the next section we'll consider more closely the relationships between how we write and how we think. The two are, of course, related, and practising the one helps improve your skills with the other -- and vice versa.

First though, a few notes on words:

  • Envy is not jealousy: envy is between two subjects; jealousy is between three or more subjects. I am envious that Tanya went sailing (Tanya and I are subjects). I am jealous of Lisa because she got to sail with Tanya (Tanya, Lisa, and I are subjects).
  • “If” signals a condition followed by a consequence. “Whether” signals an option. “I don’t know whether I should ride my bicycle” should be preferred to “I don’t know if I should ride my bicycle.” (As a writer, this level of precision should thrill you rather than annoy you.)
  • “Comprised of” simply does not work, ever, under any circumstances, because of the meaning of the word “comprise”. Comprise means to include -- compare the French "compris". “Composed of” works, because of the meaning of the word “compose”, which is to put things together.
  • I may lose my will to live, but I never lose my shall to live. “Will” and “shall” differ.
  • "May" and "might" are not synonyms. Use "may" for reasons. Use "might" when the sentence involves a condition. We might go to the beach if it doesn't start raining. We may believe this is the best beach in the world because of the view.
  • Your words change readers as they read..

Last modified: Friday, 3 August 2018, 10:28 PM