The English language has hundreds of thousands of words, and learning how to pick the right one for the occasion is an art. Like every art form, word choice is also partly subjective, depending on the context, and overall often frustrating to “get right.”
Have you ever revisited your older texts, perhaps some early attempts from many years ago? Did you have a slightly odd, cringey feeling of barely recognizing yourself as the author? If so, I can relate! This feeling of perplexed embarrassment is partly caused by the different word choices made by your old self compared to your current one.
As inexperienced authors, our vocabulary is not very evolved—that’s certainly one aspect of it. In other … words, we might not be aware that there is a more accurate, more specific word for what we try to convey. As a young author, I saw no problem with using nice in every other sentence.
The issue, however, goes far beyond not knowing a certain word.
Rather, wise word choices are less about vocabulary and more about context; less about the words, and more about what’s around them.
And so, although there is bad news—namely, you might be using the wrong word—at the same time, there is also good news: Improving does not require you to memorize the entire English dictionary. It’s a matter of recognizing the context and its subtleties.
Picking the right word for a given context is important in composing an accurate, effective, and high-quality narrative—from a humble blog post to an academic thesis and from a short story to a personal essay. The process is a never-ending one, but then again, so are the benefits. There are few things more satisfying in writing than seeing your skills continuously evolving.
Let’s take a closer look at the dynamics involved and examine the do’s and don’ts of picking the right word. Finishing this post, not only will you feel more confident in your word choices, but you’ll get an inspiration boost, too.
Picking the Right Word Begins With Understanding Those Around It
In its most basic sense, context refers to the words surrounding the one we try to select. This is easier to understand with an example:
- His shirt was a nice red color.
As I mentioned earlier, my younger self wouldn’t see anything wrong with this sentence. But now I know I can choose a better word than nice. There are many options available—off the top of my head: attractive, charming, pretty, lovely, cute, and many others. But although virtually any other word would be preferable to nice, at the same time, I need to be careful and examine the context.
In this example sentence, nice describes the color of a shirt worn by a man. That should inform the author’s word choice—perhaps cute would be less appropriate than charming, intense, or vibrant.
There is one issue, however. Context expands beyond this basic sense and the immediate surroundings to encompass increasingly larger structures. Consider the following:
- The cheerful young boy stood by the door. His shirt was a ___ red color.
- The angry old man stood by the door. His shirt was a ___ red color.
Obviously, this wider context seems to change the situation. For the former sentence, words such as cute or lovely could be appropriate, whereas in the latter example, they would seem odd.
Of course, an even wider context—indeed one transcending the text itself and revolving around authorial intention—could complicate things further. For instance, what if the author intended to portray the angry old man in a somewhat conflicting, even comical manner? Words such as cute, youthful, or even sexy would then create a destabilizing, comical effect—being therefore appropriate.
Perhaps you feel a bit intimidated by the seemingly complex way context operates, in this ever-widening manner. But worry not, I have good news: It’s not as bad as it might initially appear. With experience—with every text you write—you can get better at recognizing context and picking the right word.
Remember, there’s a flip side to this apparent complexity: You have more choices. Gradually learning to control these aspects of your narrative will greatly improve your ability to fine-tune your text, conveying precisely the meaning you intend to convey.
What Is a Register in a Narrative Context?
Before I give you some tips that will help you get better at picking the right word, we need to address a little special case of context: register.
The bit-too-formal definition of register is “a variety of a language or a level of usage, as determined by degree of formality and choice of vocabulary, pronunciation, and syntax, according to the communicative purpose, social context, and standing of the user.”
It’s an accurate description, but I hate it; it’s too stiff and pompous, so here’s my own attempt: Register describes the fact that you speak one way to your parents and another way to your best friend to say the same thing.
Consider these example sentences:
- Your honor, I did not understand the question; could you please repeat it?
- Say what?
The examples are perhaps tongue-in-cheek and somewhat extreme, but at the same time, they clearly convey the idea of register.
The way register affects word choice is perhaps self-evident in such cases—using the second phrase to address the court would be a really bad idea—but there is also a more subtle effect, one that is more related to writing and picking the right word for your narrative.
Using a register—a certain set of words that are interrelated—can bring a new dimension into your writing.
Take a look at this example:
- The angry old man stood by the door, hissing like a serpent, his eyes burning like hellfire. His shirt, a ___ red color …
Here, we already have serpent and hellfire, two words that could certainly be part of a “hellish register,” in a sense. And so, although, for example, vibrant red color is a … nice choice, the effect would be much more intense with a word like hot, flaming, or indeed even hellish.
Of course, there are other elements that you need to take into consideration. As I mentioned in the previous section and the example with the old man, sometimes authorial intention might involve contradiction. You might deliberately pick the “wrong” word, to make a point.
Similarly, aspects such as characters’ traits and setting (for fiction), or guidelines and terminology (for nonfiction) affect your word choices to a certain extent—you could indeed think of them as a part of the wider context.
With all this in mind, let’s take a look at some quick tips that can get you started on your journey to becoming more experienced in choosing the right word.
Tips on Wise Word Choices
They say that good decisions come with experience, which comes with bad decisions. This is somewhat true with picking the right word, though I’d say it’s not even that drastic. Good word choices come with experience, which comes with less good word choices.
Language does not reside in dictionaries or grammar books; it’s living and evolving with all of us. And so, except for some truly bad word choices—like telling a judge say what?—picking the right word shouldn’t cause you much alarm.
It’s not a matter of doing right instead of wrong, but doing great instead of alright.
And here’s some advice to give you a direction.
- Direct your effort and time to deciding on words that matter. Spending half an hour finding an alternative to think in a paragraph lost in a not-so-important part of your text isn’t productive. But if, for instance, you’ve reached the grand finale of your literary-fiction novel, then by all means, ponder alternatives to salvation.
- All-time classic advice, for good reason: Read a lot. Learning new words doesn’t happen by checking the dictionary (see related tip below) or by having a “word of the day” app on your phone. The reason? Lack of context. Even if there are example sentences offered, only a book or other text can organically teach you how words are used in nuanced ways.
- Use existing definitions, when applicable—they’re the already established “right words.” If you’re writing a text within a specialist framework, it’s very likely that there is a word for what you’re trying to explain. Be familiar with the jargon—everyone understands what Inspect the airplane tail for rust means, but a specialist publication would probably read Inspect the vertical stabilizer for signs of corrosion.
- Dictionaries and other tools are “nice,” but use them with caution. I use dictionaries, thesauri, and corpora often. But if you think beautiful isn’t quite right, I assure you that pulchritudinous isn’t either, even if—or, rather, precisely because—you found it in a thesaurus. I use such tools not to learn new words, but to remember words I already know.
- Remember that choosing the right word can be subjective, to an extent. Most of us would prefer a vibrant red color compared to a nice red color, but between vibrant and vivid, it’s really not feasible to reach any objective conclusions. In the end, sometimes it just doesn’t matter, so don’t fret too much about it.
It is precisely the last tip that should serve as an important reminder: Although picking the right word can boost the quality of your text, the journey toward doing it consistently is a long and ever-evolving one.
It takes time to develop a feel for finding the right word—you begin to recognize it when as a reader of your own text you smile rather than cringe. Therefore, don’t be hard on yourself, or else you will become paralyzed. The right word is better than a not-so-right word, but no word at all is even worse.
Don’t Become Preoccupied With Word Choice
When the world-renowned cellist Pablo Casals was asked why he continued to practice intensely, although he was over 80 years old, he replied: “Because I think I’m making progress.”
Lessons in music can be applied to writing, too: Most authors continue to get better with every text they write. No matter how good they might already be, there’s always room for improvement, and that also applies to word choices. Besides, writing is not about one, two, or a hundred words, but about the entire narrative as an organic whole.
And so, try not to become too preoccupied with finding the perfect word, because it’s ultimately a noble but idealistic endeavor. Perfection makes sense only when you aspire to it while fully realizing that it’s impossible.
Embrace your shortcomings—in existing vocabulary or in detecting the context—and make it a goal to be not perfect, but a little bit better each time you write something.
Featured Photo by Caleb Jones on Unsplash