How Do You Know What Words to Use?

“How do you know what words to use?”

An innocent question from a non-writer learning the ropes in public relations occupied much of my mind over the weekend. I jokingly refer to myself as a professional wordsmith, but this question left me at a loss. How to explain what I do instinctively, without thinking?

How do you know what words to use?

It’s obvious that writing is a series of choices. I choose the words I use like a composer chooses the notes on a piano keyboard, but how do I know which ones go together beautifully and which ones jangle the ear? It’s like asking how you recognize beauty.

Words, like opinions on beauty, have evolved over the centuries. You have only to look at the classical masterpieces of painter of Peter Paul Rubens or the plays of Shakespeare to realize that. Women are now called “Rubensque” as a polite way of saying they have a beautiful face but are significantly overweight.

The Second Edition of the 20-volume Oxford English Dictionary contains full entries for 171,476 words in current use, and 47,156 obsolete words. Then there are around 9,500 derivative words included as subentries. And this doesn’t take into account words with different definitions for different word classes such as noun and verb. Take the word “drive,” for example. As a noun, it’s something you park your car on, a type of street, or a part of your computer. As a verb, it’s what you do in your car, something you do with a golf ball, or a description of a personal quality, as in “she is driven to succeed.”

At the very least, a quarter of a million distinct English words, excluding inflections, and words from technical and regional vocabulary not covered by the OED, or words that are being formed that are not yet added to the published dictionary. If distinct senses were counted for all the words in existence, the total would probably approach three quarters of a million.

So out of all those words, how do you know what words to use?

It starts with reading. If you want to be a good writer, find good writers and read their words. Pay attention to the actual words they choose. Then go find writers who you don’t like, and read what they write. Ask yourself what it is about their writing you don’t like.

For public relations writing, browse news release distribution services online and corporate newsrooms and take a critical look at their news releases. Are they clear and to the point? Or are they full of jargon and puffery? Are they present tense and active, or past tense and passive?

Subscribe to sites like Bad Pitch Blog, and pay attention to the criticisms offered there.

Practice your own writing. Try to rewrite some of the releases you find online. Start by asking yourself what information did these releases leave out that you wish you knew. What information did they include that you think is irrelevant. What do you think their purpose for writing this release is? What is the key message? Would a different word here or there improve the message?

Sometimes the problem isn’t in the quality of the words you choose, but the quantity. Shakespeare’s Polonious may have said “Brevity is the soul of wit” but there are plenty who aren’t listening. Space is valuable, whether on the printed page or online. Take a look at your writing: Can you say it better with fewer words?

Will the message you choose convey the meaning you intend to the people for whom you are writing? Once you are sure of that, then you can worry about the flavor of your words. Have you found the best word, or have you settled for the most obvious one? The easy choice? Or are you venturing into the ridiculous in an attempt to impress your reader or your boss, or worse, are you attempting to cover up the fact that what you are writing isn’t really important?

Know your audience, and choose the words that will communicate the meaning accurately to them. Even in the English language, significant differences exist. In America, your car has a hood and a trunk, but in England it has a bonnet and a boot. In the US, a bonnet is an old-fashioned hat, and you wear boots on your feet. Even within the US there are regional differences in language: Here in Chicago, if you ask for a “pop” you’ll be handed a carbonated beverage, but at the opposite end of the state in Southern Illinois where I’m from, “pop” is the sound a balloon makes.” Back home, it’s a soda – no pop allowed.

It’s in the way you speak. Because of the presence of context and nonverbal cues, spoken words are put together in ways that would never work in the written word, so don’t write like you speak. Some words are loaded with meaning that you might not intend. Are you sure there aren’t any unintended meanings being conveyed? In public relations, your dictionary and the AP Stylebook can be your best friend.

Some words are archaic and not used commonly, except by specific groups. Lawyers are a perfect example:

This matter having come on for hearing of the contested Divorce call, the Defendant having been personally served and having filed his appearance and answer thereto and the Plaintiff appearing in open court in person and by attorney and the Defendant appearing by attorney and the Court having heard the evidence testimony in open court and the Plaintiff offering proof in support of the allegations and charges contained in her Complaint for Divorce, and the Defendant having had opportunity of cross-examination of the Plaintiff, and the Defendant declining to offer evidence and the Court considering all the evidence and now being fully advised in the premises, FINDS:

This one sentence drags on for FIVE pages before it ends. No wonder there’s an extra long size paper named for the profession!

In my college career as a PR major, I was taught that the maximum length of a lead sentence of a news release could not exceed 33 words – and that includes titles. That sentence you just read has 32 words, so that’s not much to work with.

Jargon or technical terms make readers work harder than necessary, and have to be used carefully. Don’t use $10 words when ten cent ones will do. Don’t say:

Contact in sports can result in the athlete incurring an ecchymosis, the bluish discoloration of an area of the mucus membrane caused by the extravasation of blood into the subcutaneous tissues as a result of trauma to the underlying blood vessels or fragility of the vessel walls.

Instead, contact in sports can result in the athlete getting a bruise.

You need to get out of the way of your message – and take as many words as possible with you. Just today, BadPitchBlog tweeted: “Once you’ve written a tight, compelling letter or “release,” take out a red pen and delete at least 30 percent of it. It’ll be better.” They’re right.

So how do you know what words to use?

Read. And practice. Words have flavor and context. You have to compare them and pick the one that will do what you want. It’s an acquired skill. Try writing the same sentence in multiple ways, using different words each time. Compare your results, and you’ll see how one will stand out from the others. With time, you’ll develop an ear for what works. Then you’ll know which words to use.

How do you know what words to use? You tell me – I’d love to know.


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