Writing the Right Words

By Erik Alatalo

Have you ever started a sentence, ready to begin discussing the ideas forming in your head, only to hit a mental roadblock as you struggle to find the right…

Words give us the wonderful ability to record our thoughts on paper, but sometimes what we mean to say gets lost in translation from our hypothetical ideas to actual written sentences.  Sometimes we focus so much on trying to impress the reader with our long sentences and big words that we lose sight of what we are actually trying to get across.  This is part of what makes the editing process essential – making sure the words we choose still convey the message we are trying to send to our readers.  Here are some tips to help choose the right word to write – or not to write:

  • Use a thesaurus with caution. Oftentimes we can get so excited by the list of big words offered to us by the handy thesaurus that we choose ones that completely change the meaning of the sentence.  Not only do many words have different connotations depending on how they are used, but many given to us by a thesaurus have slightly different meanings – all the words can’t mean exactly the same thing.  Sure, a thesaurus can improve “the red car” to “the crimson car,” but it could also change it to “the inflamed car” or better yet “the communist”  Which leads us to—
  • When in doubt, look it up. Using a fancy new word?  Sure, that’s great, but do you know what it means?  A simple dictionary check or Google search of an unfamiliar word you want to use (or even a familiar word in a new context) can be the difference between sounding intelligent and sounding foolish.
  • Identify overused words and clichés. Nothing sounds more boring than using the same words over and over.  Nothing sounds more boring than using the same words over and over.  If you can’t easily see overused words by just reading your paper, try an online word counter, such as this one.  Try using CTRL+F to search and replace repeatedly used words.  Additionally, look out for clichés such as “better safe than sorry” or “only time will tell” – clichés are overused and often impede the meaning of what you are trying to say.  Check out this site for a list of clichés.
  • Longer is not necessarily better. Say what you mean, not what sounds “the most impressive.”  If you used the pencil to write your paper, don’t say you utilized the pencil to write your paper because you think it sounds better – readers can tell when you’re trying too hard to use “impressive” language.  That being said, some good vocabulary words when used appropriately can certainly help spice up a paper.
  • Watch out for “pet” words. Everyone has them – for me it’s the word “that.”  For others it could be words like “really,” “like,” or “just.”  Words that we use for comfort that don’t add anything to the sentence.  Get rid of them!
  • Be specific! Don’t just say the “car.”  Say the “rusted green jalopy,” or the “shiny black limousine.”  The more specific you are, the better image your words will paint, and you will likely be less repetitive as well.  Also be sure to avoid vague general terms such as nouns like “things” or “stuff” or verbs like “said.”
  • Don’t get stuck on one word. So you don’t know the exact word to put in your paper… Skip it and move on!  Perhaps the word will come to you later once you have expanded upon your ideas more.  Or try putting some options for yourself using a “/” as a placeholder.  For example use “confusing/unclear/baffling” until you can come back and choose which word fits best in context, or think of a new word entirely.
  • Be careful of extreme language. Words like “always,” “never,” “everything,” “everyone,” and others can be very effective when used correctly and factually backed up.  However oftentimes this is not the case – we say, “everyone loves ice cream,” but not “everyone” does.  Using phrases like “many people” or “almost all the time” can help correct this common issue.
  • Read it out loud! Actually reading your paper can help you not only to recognize typos or verb errors, but also word choice errors such as wordiness.  If it’s hard for you to say it, it’s probably equally as hard for your reader to read it.

One final tip:

  • Say what you mean in a way you know how to say it!  Don’t use flowery and overindulgent language just to sound good – you’ll lose your point.  You have good ideas – focus on developing them!

About BentleyWritingCenter

This is the official blog of the Bentley University Writing Center staff.
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