Working with Words

"The difference between the right word and the almost right word is the difference between lightning and the lightning bug" (Mark Twain).

Using the right words can make an enormous difference in the meaning of a sentence.

  • Pin down the actual meaning of the word. Is it really what you want to say? Using YOU means the writer is personally addressing the reader. Other than in a personal letter or personal essay, that is not the purpose of the writing. When referring to a person, use WHO; when referring to an animal, use THAT. Never write "…the man that…." You are insulting the man.
  • Clean out excess words. Unnecessary wording or verbiage is much like the garbage you want to get out of the kitchen sink. It clogs up the meaning of the sentences. Simplify language. You don't want to interfere with readers' ability to grasp ideas.
  • Get rid of clichés and jargon. Overused words have a deadening effect on your writing. Technical language must relate to the audience reading the information. Assess your audience first.
  • Avoid vague wording. Say what you mean. Use concrete and specific words rather than abstractions or indefinite pronouns. Using it, them, and they can cause confusion.
  • Use active sentence construction. "The teacher lectured to the class" is an example of active construction. Avoid passive construction, as in "The class was lectured to by the teacher." Active voice is bright, clean, and sharp. Passive voice drags down the writing.
  • Avoid dull verbs. Use strong verbs that add life to the writing. "Corporal Smith made his way through the deep brush. Just then, an Army jeep came around the bend. The driver made a cloud of dirt when he came to a stop." Note the repetition and empty-sounding verbs in boldface. By replacing these boldfaced verbs with "fought his way," "shot around the bend," "kicked up a cloud of dirt," and "screeched to a stop," the writer would have changed the impact of the sentences.
  • Avoid repeating words, phrases, and sentence starters. Repetition is wearisome to read. It causes dull writing and boring sentences. Watch sentence length. Two short sentences should be followed by a long one.

Read your work aloud to yourself. Start from the end of the piece and read each sentence as a separate entity. See if it makes sense. Hear what you write. Use your finger to point to the words as you read. That will keep you from missing words or inserting words that are not written on the paper.