Are You Using the Right Words in Your Writing?
If you’re anything like me, you don’t really think about every word you use when writing the first draft of anything. You have a story in your head, something to say. So you let it flow onto the page without much filtering.
If you obsess over every single word before writing it down, you will never get anything finished. Thus, analyzing your word choice should be part of your editing process rather than your writing process.
Taking a look at your word choice is crucial if you want to make your work the very best it can be.
Every word has its primary meaning(s), but also its connotations. Many words serve multiple purposes, have multiple meanings, and might function differently depending on their linguistic environment.
In the end, it all comes down to choosing the right word in the right context. But how, you ask, can you do that?
In case of doubt, use the following two steps to find out whether you are using the right words:
1. Say What You Actually Want to Say
Oftentimes, faulty word choice will change the meaning of the entire sentence. If your sentence says something else than what you intended, take it as a sign that you might not be using the right words.
Here’s an example:
The terms Augmented Reality and Virtual Reality are often used together, even though the two technologies have a few differing features.
If we were to read only the first half of this sentence, we would think that the two terms often occur together, meaning that people often talk about both of them at the same time, like you might talk about feminism and equality within the same conversation.
However, the second half suggests that there are differences between the two technologies, which is why we should not talk about them “together.” The conjunction even though is what uncovers the author’s intended meaning:
What she meant to say was that the terms are mistaken for synonyms, even though there are differences between them. I’m sure you can guess the word she should have used instead of together:
The terms Augmented Reality and Virtual Reality are often used synonymously, even though the two technologies have a few differing features.
2. Use the Most Common Collocation
Choosing the wrong word won’t always compromise the meaning of a sentence, but it might still throw your reader off. A thrown-off reader is an unhappy reader who is prone to quitting.
And we don’t want our readers to stop reading, do we?
In general, always use the most common collocation. For example, we make mistakes rather than commit them, we collect data rather than gather it, we implement measures rather than carry them out, and so on.
There are, of course, rare opportunities when you want to create the effect of an uncommon word choice intentionally, but this should always be well-thought-out and I suggest you only use it sparingly.
In most cases, it’s better to just stick with the common phrase. A great resource to find out which is the correct collocation are language corpora such as the British National Corpus (BNC).
They have a specific function for searching collocates right here. Just enter any word and it will give you a list of common collocates sorted by how frequently they occur. You could even use a simple Google search to find out which phrase is the most common by comparing the number of search results for each option.
We are very lucky to have these tools today, so I suggest you use them.
Once you’re sure that your sentence conveys the intended meaning and is using the most common collocations, you are good to go. Your word-choice-check is officially complete.
Do this for everything you write. Your readers will thank you for it.
Subscribe to the Editor’s Letter for more writing tips and get access to my exclusive collection of common stylistic mistakes.