Mark Twain said, “The difference between the almost right word and the right word is really a large matter—it’s the difference between the lightning bug and lightning.”
How can we choose words that are so strong that they capture the imagination of our readers, move their emotions, and cause them to change? It takes many words to do that, but we choose each word one by one.
Writing that is hard to read is often easy to write, while writing that is easy to read is hard to write.
I am amazed when I read the children’s books by Arnold Lobel called Frog and Toad Together and Frog and Toad are Friends. Mr. Lobel takes basic principles of life and puts them in their simplest form.
I admire the genius it takes to make complex things simple. Write to communicate, not to impress. One way to do that is to use familiar words.
If you are reading something and come to a word that you kind of know what it means but don’t use it a lot, you’ll still get the meaning. The next unfamiliar word makes the idea a little more vague. By the time you read four or five unfamiliar words in a short space, you begin to lose the overall meaning and give up. Perhaps you have a fair idea of the meaning of each word by itself, but put together it makes it hard to read, not enjoyable to read.
Using familiar words will make your writing clear and more fun to read.
Avoid unusual words that you may know but your reader may not. Also avoid foreign words. In some cases these words may be necessary, but save unusual words for those times, and make sure the reader knows what you mean
My pet peeve word is “utilize.” Can you name one time when “utilize” works better than the simpler word “use?” OK, if you want to make a character look pompous, this will work. Otherwise “utilize” is a flowery word when a simple word would work better.
Be aware of words you typically use that could be better if simplified. Find suitable synonyms and make them a regular part of your speech and writing.
Power verbs create strong writing. Make them your friends.
What are power verbs? Strong, specific verbs that don’t need adverbs to explain them.
Poor: He walked quickly across the room.
Better: He raced across the room
How did he walk? amble, bounce, creep, leap, stroll, sneak, shuffle, race, stagger? Specific verbs are stronger than vague ones.
Being verbs are weak. Remember them? Is, are, was, were, am, be, been. They are only existing which doesn’t excite anyone.
Poor: There were ten people at the meeting.
Better: Ten people attended the meeting.
These same verbs are fine when they convey tense. You still have an action verb to carry the sentence.
He was carrying a big box. I am jumping at conclusions. He will be starting the race at ten.
When I finish writing a section, I go back and examine every verb. Can I make it stronger? If I can, I do.
Active and Passive Voice
Use active voice instead of passive voice wherever possible. Most sentences will be stronger and more direct if they are not in passive voice.
Passive voice: I was hit by a tall man.
Active voice: A tall man hit me.
An occasional sentence in passive voice may add strength, such as when a soldier grabs his chest and mutters, “I’ve been hit.” Also passive voice may be the best for talking about birth and marriage because the alternative distracts.
Passive voice: I was born on December 23.
Active voice: My mother gave birth to me on December 23.
Passive voice: They were married in First Baptist Church.
Active voice: The pastor married them in First Baptist Church.
In most cases, however, active voice offers the better alternative.
You may notice the minutes of proper business meetings are often in passive voice.
The motion was seconded by John Doe. It was suggested by Mary Smith that we table the discussion.
In this case the secretary is aiming to make things indirect, impersonal, and in sticky situations, less offensive. Unless you want your writing to sound like minutes of the last business meeting, however, leave most of your passive voice with Robert’s Rules of Order.
While you are checking your verbs for being strong and direct, check them for passive voice too.
Use no more than one adjective at a time. If your noun is strong enough without an adjective, leave it out.
Poor: The beautiful, clean, blue water fell down the long, narrow cliff onto the hard, pointed rocks below.
Better: Water roared down the chasm, pelting the sharp rocks below.
Words that Weaken
Avoid words that weaken what you write such as: really, very, rather, sort of, a wee bit, which, there.
We live in New Zealand where people don’t like emotionalism. They often say, “I sort of think we should do this.” Or “I’m a wee bit worried about her.” These expressions make statements less strong, which is what they are going for, but you want your writing to be direct and strong.
“Very” is usually not necessary if you use a good adjective.
Poor: The dog was very big.
Better: The huge dog raced across our yard.
“Which” is sometimes necessary, but replace it with “that” or leave it out when you can.
“There are” or “There were” are very weak ways to begin any sentence. You can almost always rewrite the sentence and make it stronger.
Using strong words makes for powerful writing.
Read my next article to find basic things to check for when you revise and polish your writing.
Using the principles outlined in this article, rewrite this sentence to make it stronger.
There are really very many students at that school who have been hurt by obstreperous children.