When I was a kid—probably in fourth or fifth grade—I got in some sort of minor trouble at school, something to do with my snarky reply to a teacher’s comments on a paper I’d written. (Apparently I was pretty defensive as an early writer. Or I was a mouthy kid. Or—upon reflection—likely both.)
I don’t remember the exact details but as I recall, my view was that the teacher knew what I meant, so why was he being such a butthead over my specific word choice? The actual words didn’t really matter as long as I got the point across, right? Sheesh!
A note was sent home explaining the teacher’s interpretation of the, er… discussion.
My dad’s response was to put me in the car, drive me to our local library, and prop me in front of the huge dictionary they kept on a stand. Then he made me look up the word “run,” and had me stand there and read the entire entry for that single, simple word. There was at least a page of entries (in teeny tiny dictionary font) on run as a verb. Then another page on run as a noun. Then more on it as an adjective. Then all the different variations and phrases involving this supposedly-simple little word. It took me half an hour. I got the point. (Well, the real point is that my dad was an exceptional man, but it took me a while longer to understand that particular truth.)
The point: words matter.
Meaning, inflection, and the intangible yet oh-so-important quality best described as ‘voice’ are all greatly affected by the specific words we choose to use in any given piece of writing. In fiction, words tell us much more than the objective information they’re conveying. In narrative (i.e. in a viewpoint character’s voice, whether directly in 1st person or less directly in 3rd), word choice fleshes out the character and can give clues as to their regional background, age, education, upbringing, etc., but more important, it speaks to their personality—to who they are as a person—beyond just imparting basic facts. As a character’s possible response to a situation, (1) a simple shrug, (2) saying, “I don’t know,” or (3) stating, “I’m unclear on this particular concept” all imply the same thing. But they also paint three different types of personalities, from taciturn to direct to… well, perhaps either honestly erudite or maybe just a smartass. And in dialog, of course, we can do the same with all our characters, even the otherwise-unnoticed bit players who can stand out with a unique turn of phrase.
This also applies to non-fiction: even with something as routine as technical writing, word choice can have a big impact…
Fast forward thirty years from my stint as a mouthy fifth-grader: I’ve traveled to a nuclear facility in another state to help them with some training issues. I’m part of a panel that’s interviewed a number of employees over several days, and we’re tasked with writing a report outlining their challenges and recommending solutions. There are a handful of us writing the report as a committee (which is exactly as painful as you might imagine). Some of the panel are trying to appear “writerly,” and are suggesting revisions for virtually every sentence that up the syllable count and lower the clarity. Words like delineate and mitigate and optimization and methodology are flowing like water. Very muddy water.
The facilitator of the group—who has up until then remained in the background—interrupts the proceedings. “For clarity’s sake,” she says, “why don’t we consider avoiding a longer word whenever a shorter one will work? Why say ‘utilize’ when ‘use’ will be just as clear?” I give a silent cheer and volunteer to revise the draft, and it feels like taking a shower in cool, clear water to replace the above words with more direct terms like say and fix and better and way. More important, the final result seems to have more impact, and—most important of all—gets through to its intended audience.
I never forgot that lesson. Maybe the final draft didn’t come off as “intellectual” or “writerly,” but that wasn’t the goal. The goal was (and is, and forever will be) to convey the ideas in a way that will best reach the reader.
The larger point here is not that all writing should use common, simple words. (Somewhere above I used the term erudite, because that single word conveys my meaning better than any other.) The point is that specific words have specific meanings, and a change in word choice can slant the entire tone of the piece you’re writing, whether that’s an article about when to plant begonias or a business report on corporate culture or the fictional dialog of a seventeen-year-old girl from San Diego.
For any single concept we wish to convey, there are lots of words that probably come close. We shouldn’t be lazy and automatically go with the first one to come to mind, and we shouldn’t use words that are out-of-character with the goals of the work just to try and make ourselves look like more of a “writer.” I think the best advice here is simply to not be afraid to try on different words until you find the ones that make you think, aha! (My unscientific term for the gut feeling we get when the words finally yield the tone and meaning we’ve been trying to get across.)
Words are often referred to as tools, but they can also be seen as toys. Don’t be afraid to get in there and play around.
And maybe crack open that huge dictionary if it helps.
This is where I write about things that are of interest to me and which I think may be of interest to you. I’m assuming most of you are here due to an interest in reading, writing, editing, publishing, etc., so that’s the primary focus.