Good writing has a way of singing on the page. Bad writing has a way of alienating the reader, and sometimes even causing offense without meaning to. Whether you’re writing fiction, poetry, essays, or academic papers, your specific choice of words—their style, impact, and connotative meaning—can make or break your connection with your audience.
In this article, we’ll take a deep look at what word choice means, some pitfalls to avoid in your writing, and how to choose the right word every time.
What is word choice in writing?
“Word choice” refers to the specific words a writer uses to create the most precise, persuasive, and engaging response possible. A skilled writer knows how to get the most out of their vocabulary and how to choose the best word for any readership. Word choice comes from elements like specificity, mood, writing style, and target audience.
We use word choice in daily life as well as writing. For instance, you might choose your words more carefully around someone you don’t know very well, or use more formal words in your workplace than with your friends. We choose different words when we’re talking to children than when we’re talking to adults, and we tend to use precise language in academic or technical writing.
Word choice means picking the exact best word for what we’re trying to say, and where and how we’re trying to say it.
Why is word choice so important to writers?
Precision is one of the most important tools we have available to us as writers. Some words may sound the same, but actually mean different things (like “affect” and “effect”). Some words may have very similar meanings, but slightly different connotations when used in context (like “content” and “satisfied”).
When you find the perfect word to
convey communicate encapsulate what you’re trying to say, you create a powerful connection with your reader.
On the other hand, if you use the wrong word, you can confuse your reader or even inadvertently cause offense. You may recognize this from misconstrued text messages or work emails. Incorrect words can also be vague and generalized, which keeps your reader at a distance. For example, if your character enters a “brightly glowing city,” that’s a bit more broad than looking up at a city that’s “luminescent.” The perfect word choice, particularly in fiction and poetry, can really bring a story to life.
Denotative vs. connotative word choice
When you’re considering which words to choose in a given situation, it can be helpful to think of it in terms of denotation and connotation. Denotation is a word’s literal dictionary definition: what it means according to the parameters set down by the English language. Connotation is more about its emotional impact—what it means “on the street,” or in everyday life.
For example, “hot” and “cold” are pretty straightforward dictionary definition words; they refer to temperature. But, they also have a range of hidden meanings around personality, attraction, and tension.
When you’re going over your writing, especially if you’re engaging in social or professional communication, double check that none of your word choices carry any secret, unwanted connotations.
Elements of word choice
Now that we understand word choices a bit better, let’s look at some of the elements that go into choosing just the right word.
The English language is beautifully varied and precise. It can be argued that there are no true synonyms; every single word has a slightly different implied meaning. This means that while you might have a dozen or more words that can convey what you’re trying to say in a more-or-less general way, there might only be one word that perfectly captures your intended mood, meaning, and style.
Specificity comes from experience and mastery of language. As you expand your vocabulary, you’ll add more precise words to your toolbox to capture your reader’s attention.
2. Tone and mood
The right descriptive words and figurative language can amplify the overall mood and tone of a story. For example, a gothic story might use complex words that elicit images of dark passageways, moonless nights, and whispering petticoats. A romantic comedy, on the other hand, will use more colloquial English that feels bright, fun, and relatable.
This is a useful tool when you’re in your revision process; if you want to convey a particular mood to the overall narrative, go through and swap out select words with word choices that deepen the emotional impact of the prose.
Similar to tone and mood, this means choosing words that will resonate with your target audience. For instance, you’ll use very different word choices in a university-level thesis statement than you will in a middle-grade novel. In the former example, the wrong word choice can make you look unfocused and unprofessional. In the latter example, the wrong word choice can alienate your audience completely.
Likewise, using complex industry jargon in an article will limit your audience to people who already “speak” this language; however, it will land strongly with them because they’ll feel like you’re part of their tribe.
Whether you’re using formal language, technical terminology, or accessible storytelling for younger readers, choose words that the people you’re writing to will understand and relate to.
The way you structure your words in past, present, or future tense is a tricky skill for English learners to master. But, choosing the right word structure and narrative tense will make your writing read much more smoothly. These are details like can/could/could have or get/gotten/got. On the page, the difference is minuscule, but an incorrectly conjugated snag can break your reader’s connection with your story.
It also helps to be aware of language structures like active voice and passive voice —the way a sentence structures its subject and object in a moment of action. Fortunately, we’ve got you covered with our dedicated lesson on using active and passive voice!
Finally, there’s no better way to create effective writing than to surprise your reader. When you’re writing descriptive language, see if you can come up with new ways of looking at the world that your reader hasn’t seen before. We’re all used to seeing the same metaphors, similes, and clichés in our favorite stories that we now tend to gloss over them when we read.
Instead of saying “the crescent moon was smiling,” what happens if you say “the moon was grimacing as if a hungry trucker had taken a bite out of it”? The reader sits up and pays attention, because now they can see your world clearly and vividly.
When you’re writing, and particularly when you’re revising, look for ways to breathe new life into your use of language.
Word choice traps to avoid
Now that we understand what goes into effective word choice, let’s look at some of the pitfalls new writers can fall into when choosing their words.
Commonly confused words
Even though the English language has a near-limitless reservoir of words to choose from, it has a shockingly limited choice of letters—only 26 for all those words!! That means that some words, by necessity, look or sound quite similar even though they have different meanings. This is where a lot of problems arise for new writers, particularly non-native speakers and young students.
Some commonly misused word choice examples include:
Affect and effect
Averse and adverse
Adversary and adversity
Accept and except
Elicit and illicit
Allusion and illusion
Their, there, and they’re
Your and you’re
And so forth. This is why it’s always a good idea to get editorial feedback if you’re not confident in your word choice skills.
Clichés are a natural part of exploring early writing. After all, we absorb them through the books we read and the conversations of our daily life. But, using clichés in your writing can suggest a lack of creativity, originality, and independent thought.
For example, telling your audience to “think outside the box” or describing a character as “dead as a doornail” are phrases your reader will have encountered many times before. Try using less common words to get your idea across. For instance, what else could a character be “dead as”? An aphid that stayed up late drinking weed killer? A 24-hour supermarket at 2am on a Tuesday night? If you catch yourself using a cliché, explore ways to give your writing a fresh voice.
Now with that being said, clichés can sometimes be useful for writing certain characters. For example, the villain of Neil Gaiman’s Anansi Boys loves using clichés wherever possible. If you decide to use this device, make sure you’re doing it intentionally and with purpose—not because you’ve run out of ideas.
Overly dense vernacular
When you’re writing about something you’re excited about—whether that’s a thrilling story or an article about an important topic—it can be easy to lose sight of the person you’re actually writing for. In a niche article or a story that’s set in a secondary world, be careful not to inundate your reader with words they may not be familiar with.
If you’re writing for a very targeted readership—for instance, in an academic or scientific journal—it’s usually okay to use a bigger word that makes sense in that industry’s context. But if you’re writing for a general or younger audience, make sure to explain and contextualize words that may be unfamiliar to the average person.
By which I mean using seventeen words when one will do just fine. For example, “Upon further reflection, I have come to the conclusion that” instead of “I have decided.” Or, “Regardless of the rather unfortunate fact that” instead of “Although.”
Like clichés, verbosity (or pompous wordiness) can be a fun character trait to explore. In the examples above, you can probably imagine the sort of person who would take the time to say those things. But as with all rules, make sure you’re breaking them intentionally to serve a purpose in the story.
Tips for improving word choice in writing
Now, here are a few things you can keep in mind for using strong word choice to improve your written work.
Expand your vocabulary
Strong writers have strong vocabularies: fact. You’ll have a better chance of choosing the right words every time if you have a bank of strong, specific words to choose from.
The easiest way to do this is by reading— a lot. Challenge yourself to read new genres and new material, and make a note of any words you’re not familiar with. Then, see if you can incorporate them into your everyday life (in the immortal words of Tai Frasier, “I hope it’s not sporadically!”). Try to learn a new word every day.
Have a thesaurus to hand
Thesauruses (thesauri?) can be a double-edged writing tool. On the one hand, it can tempt writers to use a bunch of unnecessary words that they simply don’t need (see extraneous verbosity, above); on the other hand, it can be a great way to find just the right word instead of a so-so word that’s kind of okay.
If you’ve reached a pivotal moment in your story and you want to pinpoint exactly how your character is feeling, try reaching for your thesaurus. Instead of “sad,” “bereft,” “disconsolate,” “dispirited,” or “anguished” might be more fitting for your protagonist’s particular moment of woe.
Get editorial feedback
Sometimes, the best way to know you’ve used the right word choice in writing is to get a second pair of eyes. An editor or beta reader can catch any unintentionally misused words or negative connotation and ensure everything comes across with the meaning the author intended. They’ll help you ensure your phrases and sentences flow smoothly and land in an emotionally powerful way.
Using effective words will make you a better writer
Word choice may be a tricky skill to master, but using the right words to get your point across will make a world of difference to the way your writing is perceived. Once you master word choice, you can work towards developing your own unique voice confidentially, succinctly, and accessibly.