Choice of Words and Good Writing

The difference between the right word and the almost right word is the difference between lightning and a lightning bug.  ~Mark Twain

This is how important the choice of words is.  Choosing right words to express exactly what you want to say, or want your readers to understand, is the most challenging part of writing. Your piece of writing may be grammatically correct, the punctuations and spellings may be perfect, but if it’s not conveying the right message – that is, the message that you want to put across to your readers – then of what use is it?

Choosing the right words is extremely essential. Then using these words in the right context is also very important. Two words may mean the same thing but may not be used in the same context. This is why it is important to understand both the denotation (the precise meaning) and the connotation (the emotional overtones of the word) of the word before using it. For example, take the words cheap and inexpensive. They have the same denotation, but different connotation. The word cheap brings in a less favorable association to the mind than the word inexpensive. So, which word would you use? This depends on what you’re writing.

Another common error, where the choice of words is concerned, is in the use of similes and metaphors. Many writers consider them to be the same and very often use one where the other should have been used. The same goes for personifications, paradoxes, hyperboles, and puns. These are all figures of speech but create different images in the mind of the reader.

All good writers strive to find the right words. They look for words that best fit their meaning and evoke the right emotion in their readers. All this may seem very simple, but believe me, it’s not. The slightest mistake, and the whole meaning changes. This is why good writers always read and re-read what they have written and change vague words for clearer and more emotionally evocative ones. This reminds me of the quote from the movie Finding Forrester – “Write your first draft with your heart.  Re-write with your head.”

George Orwell, one of the greatest writers of the twentieth century, also stressed the importance of the use of right words in his essay ‘Politics and the English Language’. He says, “Let the meaning choose the word.”

A passionate defender of good writing, he goes on to give some tips on choice of words. He says –


* A scrupulous writer, in every sentence that he writes, will ask himself at least four questions, thus: Jorwell5

  1. What am I trying to say?
  2. What words will express it?
  3. What image or idiom will make it clearer?
  4. Is this image fresh enough to have an effect?

And he will probably ask himself two more:

  1. Could I put it more shortly?
  2. Have I said anything that is avoidably ugly?

One can often be in doubt about the effect of a word or a phrase, and one needs rules that one can rely on when instinct fails. I think the following rules will cover most cases:

  1. Never use a metaphor, simile, or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print.
  2. Never use a long word where a short one will do.
  3. If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out.
  4. Never use the passive where you can use the active.
  5. Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word, or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent.
  6. Break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous.   

These rules sound elementary, and so they are, but they demand a deep change of attitude in anyone who has grown used to writing in the style now fashionable. *


Orwell’s right. These rules do sound elementary, but only a good writer knows how elementary they are.

So, are my choices of words correct in this post?


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8 Responses

  1. I love the quote at the beginning of this article. Mark Twain couldn’t have said it better. I have memorized this quote, and I think my boyfriend gets sick of how often I say it. Excellent advice. A writer too lazy to look over his thesaurus may sabotage his entire story.


  2. Have written many things with this advice always with a glance back at the start, wondering that when I turned left , should I have turned right. Most helpful when determining should my voice have been a whisper or a shout in a barrel- either way someone will hear your words-but solely,it’s up to me to decide which the reader will ‘hear’. Nice work and thank you for your voice..


  3. I love this quote by Mark Twain! He had a lot of good advise for writers, as did Ray Bradbury. I use their writing/word quotes for a lot of my inspiration and guidance.

    I have posted some author’s quotes on my word lovers and writers’ blog, The Dead Cats Society. Come and visit.


  4. Thank you all for your comments. They’re truly encouraging.


  5. […] 22, 2009 by thewritecorner As we discussed in a previous post, the choice of words is very important in order to produce a good piece of writing. But how are we to choose the right […]


  6. I found very informative. The article is professionally written and I feel like the author knows the subject very well. keep it that way.


  7. […] 7, 2009 by thewritecorner In a previous post I discussed how two words may have the same meaning, but may not be used in the same context. In […]


  8. […] have written about how important the choice of words is in writing, and talked about denotation and connotation. Euphemism is another way of choosing the […]


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