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Pro Tip 35: Watch Your Language


No, this isn’t an admonishment about cursing.


Instead, the point here is to carefully consider your choice of words as you write, weaving them into a whole that exceeds the sum of their parts. Mark Twain advised readers to keep things simple in language, saying, “Don’t use a five-dollar word when a fifty-cent word will do.”


Choose the most accurate word for your meaning. Consult a thesaurus when stuck for the exact right one. But don’t overcomplicate; K.I.S.S. (Pro Tip 11) instead.


INTENTIONAL ACT

I used to be skeptical when my high school English teachers would analyze literature like The Scarlet Letter. They dug deeply into the text, looking for meaning in the smallest details—how characters talked, how locations (or even the weather) were described, how there were underlying themes and imagery to be unveiled.


It all seemed like navel gazing, uselessly seeking messages that weren’t there. I played along and got A’s, but I wondered whether Nathaniel Hawthorne (the creator of The Scarlet Letter) and other authors intentionally imbued each word of their work with meaning.


Having written and edited countless words, I can now say that they did. Effective writers create with intention, down to each word they choose. They understand the tools that they have been given to create—language, grammar (Pro Tip 39), punctuation (Pro Tip 38)—and wield them skillfully. They make smart choices about what they present on a page, with each detail contributing to the tale they have to tell (Pro Tip 2).


Bring intentionality to your language. Don’t write accidentally; say what you mean and mean what you say (Pro Tip 11). Make each word work for you.


Apologies to my English teachers who better understood effective writing than I did back then; that’s why they got paid the big bucks. (Kidding.)


REPEAT ADVICE

One easy thing to do: try not to repeat key words in a paragraph. This forces you to think and be creative.


It can be tough, but varying your language adds interest. Repeating the same words in close proximity creates what journalists call an “echo.” The mind bumps when it hears the same terms or phrases in a row.


Take this example from Vogue:


HBO has yet to confirm an exact release date for House of the Dragon, but it will definitely hit screens at some point in 2022, most likely during the summer. There will be 10 episodes in the first season, most likely running at around 60 minutes each.


Note that “most likely” is an echo; the second one could be easily eliminated or replaced with “probably.”


Train yourself to diversify your language. Obviously you can’t avoid restating some words in a paragraph, and sometimes you repeat them for rhythm and effect. Open up your vocabulary, though, and substitute new terms for ones you’ve already used.


This automatically makes your writing more varied and engaging.


SPECIFIC ACTION

Specific details make writing lively (Pro Tip 2) and honest (Pro Tip 19).


Rather than using vague terms, choose concrete language. In nonfiction, ask sources how something looked, how it measured, how it worked, how it felt. For fiction, research to do the same thing or make up details.



Concrete language refers to things that we can experience directly through the senses …. The opposite of specific is general. The opposite of concrete is abstract. So the name of an individual person, ‘Mr. Stockhurst,’ is both specific and concrete. A larger group, ‘the teachers at Triton Middle School,’ is concrete but more general. ‘Teachers’ is even more general. ‘Education’ is a concept, both abstract and general. …. Specifics are almost always clearer than generalizations—it’s easier to tell exactly what you are saying. And the concrete is almost always easier to follow than the abstract. It may not be easier to write specifically and concretely, but it produces writing that is easier to read.



Details should never be written just for details’ sake. Rather, as a writer, you should be selective. Write down only those details which are essential for readers to appreciate and experience your ideas and memories.


REDUNDANCY REDUCTION

Watch your language by not being redundant, which means not using phrases with unnecessary words that prevent you from being concise.


Unfortunately, redundancy creeps into daily language all the time (see For Example, below). I hear people using expressions like “for a long period of time,” when “for a long time” is just as accurate and shorter. Some also seem compelled to utter “on a daily basis”; just say “daily” instead. And eliminate “the fact that” and say simply “that.”


Watch your language so that the rest of your writing will be more effective.


FOR EXAMPLE

Reduce redundant phrases like these examples from Writing Commons:


small in size or large in size

true facts

past history

consensus of opinion

shouted loudly

whispered softly

finished completely


In the phrases above, one word would be sufficient, not two or three. Note that the last few items are “-ly” adverbs, which Stephen King and other writers have said should be murdered (Pro Tip 13).

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