Tips: Choosing the Best Words

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Writing is all about choices—deciding what to communicate and how to communicate it. It’s about selecting ideas and deciding how best to express them. Decisions about words and sequencing—the order that a writer presents ideas in a piece—are also important. The most important factor to consider when making these decisions is audience (the topic of an earlier post). As a professional who regularly writes for a broad variety of audiences—from scientists and parliamentarians to commuters and foreign investors—here are a few tips on choosing appropriate words.

Audience’s vocabulary level
Based on your research, make an educated guess about the audience’s language level. The more educated they are, the more likely they are to appreciate the nuances of vocabulary. Words such as continuous and continual are not synonyms, for instance, while relatively similar terms such accurate, precise and exact are best used in particular circumstances or when paired with specific words. When writing for the general public, avoid words not used in everyday conversation—if it doesn’t roll off the tongue, replace it.

Creativity level
Some projects, such as ads, naming exercises and multi-media scripts, call for more creativity than others. Delivering the kind of creativity that appeals to a particular audience requires knowing a lot about the audience—how old they are, where and how they live. Each noun, adjective and adverb has at least two or three other words (or expressions) with similar meanings. Choose the one most likely to resonate with the audience.

Use a thesaurus
A thesaurus is the diligent writer’s best friend; Oxford remains the standard, although there are more and more decent online options. When you look up a word, rank options according to levels of vocabulary, formality and positivity. Choose the one best suited to the audience and piece.

The unexpected word
This tip’s from a former mentor, who showed me the power of choosing an unusual word to convey a deeper level of meaning, draw in an audience, or inject a bit of humour. It’s a technique that must be used sparingly for best effect. To get an idea of the effect, replace “sparingly” with “daintily” in the previous sentence.

Know thy genre
Each genre (website, speech, report) has its own conventions. To put it another way, the audience has specific expectations for each genre and the writer’s job is to meet these expectations. What works in a speech won’t necessarily work in a brochure, print ad or annual report.

Recognize that a writer’s intelligence is on display with each sentence and that the best way to engage readers is to consistently make smart choices.

Do you have tips on how to choose the right words? Post up!
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