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Improve Writing by Improving Word Choice

written by: Trent Lorcher • edited by: Donna Cosmato • updated: 1/17/2012

To improve strength, build muscles. To improve writing, improve your word choice. Here are some tips for all the students out there to help you improve the word choices you make.

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    There are many ways of increasing word choice: finding synonyms, taking vocabulary quizzes, learning Greek and Latin roots. Improving your word choice, however, should go beyond these traditional exercises. Choosing the right word involves knowing more words, and more importantly, knowing what you want to say. Having a clarity of purpose and a stable of words will improve writing.

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    Choose the Correct Word to Improve Your Writing

    To improve writing you must improve your attitude, in this case, your attitude towards words. They formulate the basis for everything you write.

    1. Use the right word. In order to use the right word, you must have a sizeable word bank. The more words you possess, the more likely you'll choose the right word.
      • Listen and read carefully. You'll be amazed at how many words people use that you don't know. Listen to and read the masters. Jot down unfamiliar words.
      • Collect words. How many vocabulary lists, root lists, and subject specific terms have you been assigned since you were in school? If you're like most students, those crumpled lists ended up in your backpack until two minutes before the quiz and in the trash can two minutes after the quiz. Keep the lists. Learn the words. You won't become a master of words overnight, but you will eventually.
      • Use a thesaurus. A thesaurus will remind you of words you already know. With a thesaurus, you can make your point with less redundancy and keep your writing fresh. Warning--make sure you know what the word means before you use it. Just because it's a synonym doesn't mean it's appropriate. A word's connotation might be offensive when you want diplomacy and vice versa. Imagine, for example, picking your date up on Friday night and telling her father that you have some really fun schemes, or some well thought out intentions or stratagems, when what you meant to say was you had some detailed plans and arrangements for the evening.
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    Make an Impression

    So far we've discussed the mindset necessary to improve writing by using better words. Following are specific things you can work on to improve your word choice.

    1. Make an impression.
      • Choose concrete over abstract. Choose specific over general. He wept as he saw the torn flag amidst the rubble is better than He was sad about the ruined flag after the building was destroyed. The first sentence shows a specific action (He wept), a specific flag irregularity (torn flag), and a specific building (the rubble). It is something the reader can visualize. The second sentence tells us about an abstract state (He was sad), a flag with something wrong with it (ruined flag) and a building that no longer exists (destroyed). One is concrete and specific. The other is abstract and general.
      • Appeal to sensory images. This is an extension of the above. Show the reader with images. Don't limit yourself to visual detail. There are four other senses that work just as well.
      • Choose verbs. Strong verbs have a greater impact than any other part of speech. Don't just make an attempt to make your writing better. Attempt to write better.
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    Make a Positive Impression

    We've discussed the do's of good word choice. Here are some do nots.

    1. Avoid these common errors in word choice.
      • Look distrustfully on modifiers. Adjectives and adverbs often weaken when they're intended to strengthen. They often serve as clutter. Trust your verbs. Trust your nouns. When revising, treat adverbs and adjectives as you would an uninvited guest at a party. You don't have to kick all of them out, but some are just up to no good and need to go.
      • Avoid sexist language. Avoid masculine or feminine pronouns when possible. Use articles, third person plural pronouns, second person pronouns, or both the masculine and feminine pronoun to avoid sexist language.
      • Avoid fancy language. Utilizing grandiose vernacular fails to attract the average peruser of literature means using fancy words turns away readers. Choose the word that works best. That word is usually the shortest one you can find that says what you want it to. If people wanted to read Shakespeare, they'd go to the library.