If you want to sound smarter in your next writing project, don’t use words that sound smart. Instead, use words that are smart. There is a big difference between the two.
What makes a word smart? Is it determined by how many syllables it has? Is the word utilize smarter than the word use? Is the longest recorded word in English (this one with an astonishing 189,819 letters) also the smartest word in the world?
The answer to both questions is no, definitely not.
Think about this: would a doctor use a giant pair of scissors to perform a gall bladder surgery just because the scissors are big, impressive, and used in ribbon cutting ceremonies?
No, he would use the most efficient tools for the job. Yes, the scissors have their place in the world, but they are not designed to perform surgery.
The same goes for words. If you are writing a dissertation called “Statistical Methods in Integrative Analysis of Gene Expression Data with Applications to Biological Pathways,” then sure, you’re going to need some pretty complicated and scientific words to get the job done.
However, if you’re writing a response paper to The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn or creating marketing copy for the web, then using a straightforward set of English vocabulary that everyone understands will make your work smarter. And it will make you a better writer.
This post is about how to become a better writer by using the right words.
How to Become a Better Writer: Choose the Right Word
“Don’t use words too big for the subject. Don’t say ‘infinitely’ when you mean ‘very’; otherwise you’ll have no word left when you want to talk about something really infinite.” –C.S. Lewis
How do you know if you’re choosing the right word? If you ever come across a word that you want to use because you think it sounds smart, consider the following questions to find out if it is smart:
- Is the meaning correct? Use a dictionary to find out whether the word conveys your intended message.
- Is there a more efficient word for the job? Use a thesaurus to look for a simpler word choice.
- Does your word add relevant meaning to your message? If not, see if you can omit it or find a better word.
- Is the word repeated too often? Is it a crutch word? If so, see if you can omit it or find a better word.
Don’t worry, I’ll cover each of these bullets in more detail soon, but for now I’ve turned this idea into a flow chart for you. Feel free to print it out and paste it on your forehead for easy reference.
Now I’m going to break these tips down, and show you some examples to make it easier for you to learn how to become a better writer.
At Kibin, we edit thousands of papers; from these, I’ve found some examples of writing that use poor diction. By the way, “diction” is simply a sophisticated way of saying “word choice.”
How to Become a Better Writer: Does the Word Have the Correct Meaning?
To learn how to become a better writer, you must make sure your words mean what you intend them to.
Can you pick out the incorrect word choice in this sentence?
“The senator wore a bemused expression; he thought the president’s joke was funny.”
If you picked “bemused,” you are right! A quick check of the dictionary shows that bemused means, “marked by confusion or bewilderment.” The writer meant to say, “amused.” The senator was amused with the president’s joke. He thought it was entertaining, not confusing.
The corrected sentence is, “The senator wore an amused expression; he thought the president’s joke was funny.”
Did you know that the misuse of a word with funny results is called a malapropism? Mrs. Malaprop, a character in the 1775 play The Rivals, was famously named after the word. She was known for making these types of amusing errors in speech.
Another well-known person who is guilty of malapropisms in speech is former President George W. Bush.
How to Become a Better Writer: Is There a More Efficient Word for the Job?
“Use plain, simple language, short words and brief sentences. That is the way to write English–it is the modern way and the best way. Stick to it; don’t let fluff and flowers and verbosity creep in.” –Mark Twain
Can you pick out the word that is too complex in this sentence?
“The facts were erroneous, and the teacher rejected the argument.”
If you picked “erroneous,” you win! When I consult my handy thesaurus, I find that some alternatives to “erroneous” include false, flawed, inaccurate, and spurious. Since the writer wants to point out that the facts had some errors, the best word choice is “flawed.”
The new, improved sentence is: “The facts were flawed, and the teacher rejected the argument.”
As you can see, there is no need to be a sesquipedalian writer (a writer prone to using very long words). Shorter, more commonly used words are usually the most compelling.
How to Become a Better Writer: Does the Word Add Relevant Meaning to the Sentence?
To learn how to become a better writer, the words you choose must add meaning.
Can you pick out the meaningless words in this sentence?
“I am drawn to this work because it empowers others to feel powerful.”
If you picked “to feel powerful,” good job! The problem with this sentence is the writer used words that don’t add any meaning to the sentence. The word empower means to give power to someone. So writing, “empowering someone to feel powerful” is redundant. By omitting the extra words that don’t add meaning, the sentence becomes more… powerful.
The corrected sentence is: “I am drawn to this work because it empowers others.”
If this doesn’t convey the message completely, then the writer could add more meaningful detail. For example, “I am drawn to this work because it empowers others to make positive changes.”
How to Become a Better Writer: Is the Word Repeated Too Often?
Can you pick out the repetition in this sentence?
“The horse was very beautiful; she had very black fur and a very elegant gait.”
If you selected “very,” nice job, you’re very smart! In this sentence, the word “very” is repeated three times. In each case, it can be omitted.
A better sentence is: “The horse was beautiful; she had black fur and an elegant gait.”
If the writer wants to convey that the horse wasn’t just beautiful, but that it was incredibly beautiful, she might choose to add a couple of smart word choices. For example:
“The horse was exceptionally beautiful; she had shiny black fur and an elegant gait.”
It’s not uncommon for writers to develop crutch words. These are words that a writer uses to get through a writing project, just like when a public speaker says “umm” to get through a speech.
If you want to break yourself of a crutch word habit, employ the advice of Mark Twain, who famously said, “Substitute damn every time you’re inclined to write very; your editor will delete it and the writing will be just as it should be.”
Not sure what your crutch word is yet? Some of the more common ones I see in papers I edit include however, therefore, very, really, think, believe, actually, and always. Check out this cool program that helps you find repeated words and phrases in your work.
A Final Note About How to Become a Better Writer
If you are serious about learning how to become a better writer, then you must get into the habit of making sure that all of the words you use say exactly what you want them to mean, and that they are essential to your message.
Some writers try to sound smarter by filling their pages with words that look big and impressive, but this is not the right way to go. The words you choose should be direct, informative, and leave no question in your reader’s mind about what you are trying to say.
Excellent writing is clear and easy to understand. Good luck!