25 Things You Should Know About Word Choice

1. A Series Of Word Choices

Here’s why this matters: because both writing and storytelling comprise, at the most basic level, a series of word choices. Words are the building blocks of what we do. They are the atoms of our elements. They are the eggs in our omelets. They are the shots of liquor in our cocktails. Get it right? Serendipity. Get it wrong? The air turns to arsenic, that cocktail makes you puke, this omelet tastes like balls.

2. Words Define Reality

Words are like LEGO bricks: the more we add, the more we define the reality of our playset. “The dog fucked the chicken” tells us something. “The Great Dane fucked the chicken” tells us more. “The Great Dane fucked the bucket of fried chicken on the roof of Old Man Dongweather’s barn, barking with every thrust” goes the distance and defines reality in a host of ways (most of them rather unpleasant). You can over-define. Too many words spoil the soup. Find the balance between clarity, elegance, and evocation.

3. The “Hot And Cold” Game

You know that game — “Oh, you’re cold, colder, colder — oh! Now you’re getting hot! Hotter! Hotter still! Sizzling! Yay, you found the blueberry muffin I hid under the radiator two weeks ago!” –? Word choice is like a textual version of that game where you try to bring the reader closer to understanding the story you’re trying to tell. Strong, solid word choice allows us to strive for clarity (hotter) and avoid confusion (colder).

4. Most With Fewest

Think of it like a different game, perhaps: you’re trying to say as much as possible with as few words as you can muster. Big ideas put as briefly as you are able. Maximum clarity with minimum words.

5. The Myth Of The Perfect Word

Finding the perfect word is as likely as finding a downy-soft unicorn with a pearlescent horn riding a skateboard made from the bones of your many enemies. Get shut of this notion. The perfect is the enemy of the good. For every sentence and every story you have a plethora of right words. Find a good word. Seek a strong word. But the hunt for a perfect word will drive you into a wide-eyed froth. Though, according to scholars, “nipplecookie” is in fact the perfect word. That’s why Chaucer used it so often. Truth.

6. No One Perfect Word, But A Chumbucket Of Shitty Ones

For every right word, you have an infinity of wrong ones.

7. Awkward, Like That Kid With The Headgear And The Polio Foot

You might use a word that either oversteps or fails to meet the idea you hope to present. A word in that instance would be considered awkward. “That dinner fornicated in his mouth” is certainly a statement, and while it’s perhaps not a technically incorrect metaphor, it’s just plain goofy (and uh, kinda gross). You mean that the flavors fornicated, or more likely that the flavors of the meal were sensual, or that they inspired lewd or libidinous thoughts. (To which I might suggest you stop French-kissing that forkful of short ribs, pervhouse.) To go with the food metaphor for a moment (“meat-a-phor?”), you ever take a bite of food and, after it’s already in your mouth, discover something in there that’s texturally off? Bit of gristle, stem, bone, eyeball, fingernail, whatever? The way you’re forced to pause the meal and decipher the texture with your mouth is the same problem a reader will have with awkward word choice. It obfuscates meaning and forces the reader to try to figure out just what the fuck you’re talking about.

8. Ambiguous, Like That Girl With That Thing Outside That Place

Remember how I said earlier that words are like LEGO, blah blah blah help define reality yadda yadda poop noise? Right. Ambiguous word choice means you’re not defining reality very well in your prose. “Bob ate lunch. It was good. Then he did something.” Lunch? Good? Something? Way to wow ’em with your word choice, T.S. Eliot. To repeat: aim for words that are strong, confident, and above all else, clarifying.

9. Incorrect, Like That Guy Who Makes Up Shit When He’s Drunk

Incorrect word choice means you’re using the wrong damn word. As that character says in that movie, “I do not think it means what you think it means.” Affect, effect. Comprise, compose. Sensual, sensuous. Elicit, illicit. Eminent, immanent, imminent. Allude, elude. Must I continue? Related: if you write “loose” instead of “lose,” I cannot be held accountable if I kick you so hard in your butthole you choke on a hemorrhoid.

10. Step Sure-Footedly

Point of fact: the English language was invented by a time-traveling spam-bot who was trapped in a cave with a crazy monk. Example: The word “umbrage” means “offense,” so, to take umbrage means to take offense. Ah, but it also means the shade or protection afforded by trees. I used to take the second definition and assume it carried over to the people portion of that definition. Thus, to “take umbrage” meant in a way to “take shelter” with a person, as in, to both be under the same shadow of the same tree. I used the word incorrectly for years like some shithead. If you’re uncertain about the use of any word, it’s easy enough to either not use it or use Google to define it (“define: [word]” is the search you need). Do not trust that the English language makes sense or that your recollection of its madness is pristine. It will bite you every time.

11. The Barbaric Barf-Yawn That Is Your First Draft

This is not a hard or fast rule (hell, none of this is), but in my highly-esteemed opinion (translation: debatable bullshit mumbled by a guy who thinks “cock-waffle” should be a part of our collective daily vocabulary), you don’t need — or want! — to refine your word choice in the first draft. That initial draft is, for me, a screaming weeping blubberfest where I just want to cry all the words out without any care in the world how they get onto the page. Second and subsequent drafts, however, are a good time to zero in on problems big and small. Don’t spend your first draft scrutinizing word choice.

12. Verbs: Strong Like Bull

For every action you’ll find a dozen or more verb-flavors of that action. You can drink your coffee or you can gulp, sip, guzzle, or inhale it. You can run down the street or you can jog, bolt, sprint, dash, saunter, or hotfoot it. You can have sex with someone or you can fuck ’em, hump ’em, make love to ’em, or ride ’em like Seabiscuit in a gimp mask. (Do they make gimp masks for horses? To the Googlemobile!) Use a strong verb that clarifies the action and makes sense in the context of the scene. A hostage escaping his kidnappers isn’t going to scamper away — he’s going to barrel, hurtle, bolt, or if you’re a fan of not-fixing-what-ain’t-broke, he’ll run like a motherfucker. If the base-level verb gives you maximum potency and clarity, then use it.

13. “I Like Playing With My Cats!” John Ejaculated From His Mouth

Mmmyeah, one caveat to the “strong clarifying verb” thing — it doesn’t apply to dialogue tags. No, no. Don’t resist. Hold still. Stop trying to chew through the duct tape. I know you want to your characters to yelp, blurt, scream, gibber, shriek, murmur, mumble, babble, explain, exhort, plead, interrupt, erupt, exclaim, and ejaculate constantly, but don’t do it. Do. Not. Do. It. Rely on “say/said” 80-90% of the time. You can, when seeking variety and clarification of action, use another dialogue tag.

14. The Verb “To Be”

Am. Is. Was. To Be. Will Be. Whatever. I’m not one of those who will tell you to cut out every instance of the verb “to be” in all its simple-headed forms because sometimes, simplicity is best. And yet, overuse of that verb may weaken your writing. Look for instances where the verb can be replaced by a stronger one or where it adds needless roughage to a sentence. “Barry is playing with himself in the corner” is better as “Barry plays with himself in the corner.” If you say, “It is my opinion that Rush Limbaugh should be stuffed with dynamite and exploded like a beached whale,” you’d be better off with, “I believe Rush Limbaugh…” instead. Oh, and if a sentence starts with “there is” or “it was,” you should attack that sentence with lasers.

15. The Word “Specificity” Is Really Fun To Say

No, really. Try it, I’ll wait. … Are you done yet? Specificity. Specificity. Spehhh-siiiihh-fiiiihh-sihhhh-teeee. Anyway. Moving on. Words help us define reality — nouns doubly so. Creature? Animal? Mammal? Cat? Panther? Housecat? Tomcat? Russian Blue? The North Canadian Spangled Bobtail? There I charted specificity to the point where it became useful and then crossed over into absurd bullshit. If I tell the reader that the cat is a “housecat,” we all get it. But if I say that the cat is a “Lambkin dwarf cat,” only a handful of cat geeks are ever going to grok my lingo. Aim for specific, but realize you can get too specific.

16. The Strong Spice Of Adverb And Adjective

Sometimes, a verb or noun just doesn’t tell the whole tale. I can say “housecat,” but I mean, “calico kitty with a sprightly attitude and a penchant for meowing loudly.” Calico. Sprightly. Loudly. These all modify the verbs and nouns present in order to paint a picture. Adverbs and adjectives provide both a deeper sense of specificity while also providing flavor or color to the world. They’re a strong spice. Use when you need, not when you want. Say what you mean and no more.

17. Adverbs Are Not Your Mortal Foe

Writers often bandy about that old crunchy nugget of of penmonkey wisdom — NO ADVERBS — as if it is bulletproof. As if a gang of adverbs shanked that writer’s mother in the kidneys as she stooped over to water the hydrangeas. Adverbs are not birthed from the Devil’s hell-womb. They’re just words. Did you know that “never” is an adverb? As is “here?” And “tomorrow?” You can rely too heavily on adverbs (and amateurish writers do). You can also use adverbs that are unnecessary or that sound clunky when staple-gunned to the end of a sentence. And adverbs paired with dialogue tags will often chafe one’s taint, but that doesn’t mean you need to hunt down every last adverb with a spear-gun.

18. The Thesaurus Is Not Satan’s Own Demon Gospel

The thesaurus is not a bad book (or, these days, website). I love the thesaurus because I have a brain like a rust-eaten bucket — shit slips through all the time. I’m constantly snapping my fingers saying, “There’s a word that’s like this other word but not quite and OH SHITDAMNIT I CAN’T REMEMBER IT WHO AM I AND WHY AM I WEARING LADIES’ UNDERWEAR?” So, I turn to the thesaurus not to look for a better, fancier word but instead to find the word my feeble mouse-eaten brain cannot properly recall. It is not the thesaurus that is the root of all evil but rather the love of the thesaurus that urges writers to commit the sin of pompous word choice. It is not a crutch; do not lean upon it.

19. Big Words For Tiny Penises

Smaller words are nearly always better than big ones. Big words put distance between you and the reader. Each added syllable is a speed-bump. Don’t use word choice to sound smart. Don’t talk circles around the reader. Your job is communication. Is your story a bridge between you and the reader — or is it a wall?

20. The Jingly Jangle Of Jargon

Jargon is when you rely on technical or area-specific terminology to get across your point. Jargon uses a limited vocabulary to speak to a small circle of people, and this is true whether you’re talking about some aspect specific to knight’s armor, a scientific theory, or the manufacture of space-age dildo technology. The test is easy. Ask yourself, will most people know what the fuck I’m talking about? If yes, carry on. If no, either use plain-spoken language or take the time to explain that shit you just slung into my eyes.

21. The Plumber Versus The Aristocrat

Certainly you have some leeway in terms of choosing the correct words for your expected audience. If you’re writing a novel about baseball, nobody would fault you for using a metric crap-sack of baseball terminology. You’ll certainly write different prose if you expect your audience to comprise plumbers instead of an aristocrats. Still, you’ll find value in reading to be read widely, not just by a subset of potential readers.

22. Junk In The Trunk

I’ll admit it: I love junk words. They are the greasy hamburger of prose, delicious to me and plump with empty calories. Effectively! In theory! Very! Happen to! Point is! You know? They offer minimal — if any! — functionality. Hunt them down with merciless abandon. Stomp them with cleated shoe until they squeal.

23. From The Department Of Redundancy Department

The repetition of one or several words can have a potent effect — but what happens a lot of time is, you repeat words accidentally. “The day was hot and heat vapors rose off the ground. The heat sapped Quinn’s energy.” Hot, heat, heat. A reader will trip on such repetition. And then he’ll fall down some steps and break his coccyx. Man, “coccyx” sounds like some kind of dinosaur bird, doesn’t it? THE MIGHTY COCCYX SWOOPS TO FEAST ON THE BABY TURTLEBUGS. I dunno. Shut up. Don’t judge me.

24. The Sound Of Words Matter

Words play off other words. Together they form rhythm. Choose words that pair well together, like red wine and steak. Or Pabst Blue Ribbon and hipster shame. Or heroin and delicious urinal cakes. Shakespeare knew that rhythm mattered and so chose words that slotted into iambic pentameter. The way you hear the rhythm of the words is to read your work aloud. Do that and you’ll find the flow — or, more importantly, find what’s damming the flow so you can fix it with proper word choice and sentence construction.

25. You Will Be Judged On The Words You Choose

Consider word choice to be a test posited by the audience. Make errors (lose/loose), they will see you for the rube you are. Write by relying on big words, heavy jargon and purple prose and they will see you as sticking your literary nose in the air. The result is the same: they will close the book and then beat you to death with it. They are also likely to violate your pallid carcass with various kitchen implements.

Write to be read. Choose words that have flavor but do not overwhelm, that reach out instead of pushing back, that sound right to the ear and carry with them a kind of rhythm. Write with confidence, not with arrogance. Don’t be afraid to play with words. But be sure to let the reader play with you.


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68 comments

  • I disagree with rule 11. I know that you said that it wasn’t a hardfast rule. But I strongly disagree with it. The word choice is important EVEN on the first draft. The word choice will fuel your emotions and creativity when you re-read to find your place in writing again. Word choice inspires you to continue in your work. If you stop at “she left it and was sad,” you aren’t as likely to continue it. However, if you stop at “She walked slowly from Henry’s house, consumed in her thoughts. Why did he yell at her? a tear slips down her cheek. Didn’t he know that she only wanted to help him? That she cares deeply for him?” the second one will give you a lot more to write about when you do continue writing. The first one requires more effort to get started. The second one gives you momentum to pick the pen up again.

  • I am giving you full credit but am adapting this slightly to use the ideas (and humor) with my fifth graders tomorrow. Thank you for this!

  • Whenever I’ve used the word “grok” people have looked at me askance. You’re the only other person in several decades who has done so. Robert Heinlein (spelling?) wrote a book titled Stranger In A Strange Land in which the word he devised appeared as part of the lingo of a group of people. The book made a powerful impression on me when I was young, and so I was interested to reread it when by chance it hove into my world some years ago. Appalled by the writer’s ineptitude at the craft I struggled with the first two chapters and had to abandon it, marvelling at what little literary competence was required to absorb me in my youth. But that word remains in my consciousness as unique in its purpose, describing a quality of understanding which encompasses all elements of the thing to be apprehended in a way which no dictionary or thesaurus proffers as a legitimate contender.

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