6 + 1 Writing Traits: Word Choice

word choice matters

<Do I sense your anger, or do I sense my own?>

Just like all the other traits, word choice is important.

So the questions above. Do they make sense? There’s missing context right? So while word choice may not give you context, the specific words you choose are still important.

My pet peeve is when people don’t use the correct word for what they are talking about. They use some lazy word like “thing.” Here’s an example:

“Hey Word Wabbit, I’ve got this thing around six, could you work on that thing we were talking about, you know, with what’s-her-name, and then tell me, you know, how you’re feeling about it tomorrow.”

Too much of this and I’m driven up the wall. Seriously. We all do it. I’m guilty of it too, but in professional writing (as opposed to spoken word), there’s no place for laziness. We need to say exactly what we mean. Don’t ask the reader to do any work.

Word Choice is the use of rich, colorful, precise language that communicates not just in a functional way, but in a way that moves and enlightens the reader. In good descriptive writing, strong word choice clarifies and expands ideas. In persuasive writing, careful word choice moves the reader to a new vision of things. Strong word choice is characterized not so much as exceptional vocabulary that impresses the reader, but more by the skill to use everyday words well [emphasis is mine].
—Source: random piece of paper @ 2004 from a graduate course that I recently retrieved from the floor of my home-office

People will tell you not to use adverbs. (Examples: quickly, heatedly, slowly, loudly, mercilessly, etc.) Here’s why. If you need to tack on a word to help convey the meaning of your verb, your verb isn’t strong enough. Try looking for another verb.

People will say: use active verbs. (The terminology I was taught was “action” verbs.) This means, when possible, try to not use the “to be” verb. People will call this the “Be” verb. I like to say “to be” because I’m in the habit of referring to the verb by its infinitive, which includes the “to.” (To buy, to walk, to talk, to eat, to sit, to read, to learn, etc.)

It’s good to know when your “to” is part of an infinitive or is acting as a preposition.

Here’s an example:
I went to the store to buy some peppers.

  • In the sentence above, the first “to” is a preposition. Its object is “store.”
  • The second “to” is part of the verb infinitive “to buy.” It is not a preposition and has no object.

But back to the “to be” verb. This is an irregular verb in English, so if you want to use stronger “action” verbs, it’s good to know what you’re thinking about avoiding. (I’m not telling you to avoid the “to be” verb. I’m just saying that sometimes, maybe often, there is a better, more exact verb you could use instead.)

To Be (present tense) To Be (simple past tense)
I am I was
You (singular) are You (singular) were
He/She/It is He/She/It was
We are We were
You (plural) are You (plural) were
They are They were

People will also tell you not to use the “to be” verb because it is a sign that you are using passive voice. This is not true! You might be using passive voice, but you are not necessarily using passive voice when you use the “to be” verb!!!


There’s passive voice and there’s active voice. When you’re using passive voice, you know because you’ve been able to get your message across without implicating anyone:

  • Mistakes were made. (Who made them? Gee, I dunno. This must be in passive voice. Oh, if only the writer had been more specific. Fire the writers!!!!)
  • Harold made mistakes. (Now we’re getting somewhere. This is in active voice. Fire Harold!!!!)

Notice that in the first example the word “were” appears. This is a form of the “to be” verb. And in this instance, we have passive voice. But, as I said, a form of the “to be” verb does not always indicate passive voice:

The girls were intelligent.

Here, “were” is a perfectly legitimate linking verb. It links the subject “The girls” with the predicate adjective “intelligent.

People will tell me: This verb isn’t active enough.

Ahhhhhh! (Fire the English teacher!)

Ok, this is like being a little bit pregnant. Either you are or you aren’t. Either you have an “action” verb or you do not. Don’t confuse action verbs with “active and passive voice.”

  1. So, do they mean that the verb isn’t “specific” enough?
  2. Are they looking for “movement“? (The verb isn’t active enough?)
  3. Or, do they simply have the “to be” verb phobia that seems to be going around?

Well, those are my main issues when it comes to word choice. The important thing is to use the most accurate word to represent what you’re talking about. Call things by their names. Don’t dumb things down for your reader. Give your reader some credit. On the other hand, remember your audience. If your audience isn’t highly technical, don’t burden your reader with technical jargon.

This can be a dilemma and create a tug-of-war between using the “correct” word and using the word that your reader will understand. I would err on the side of greater clarity because if I don’t call things by their correct names, the reader (who might be more knowledgeable than I predicted) might think I don’t know what I’m talking about. Then I lose credibility. And the whole thing is shot. So use the correct word, and provide a brief explanation if you think you need to.

Assessing Word Choice

  • Words are specific, precise, and appropriate. (Words evoke images. You see what’s going on.)
  • Powerful words provide energy. (You have a feeling of action, activity.)
  • Words are not abstract, cliché, or include jargon.





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