word choice

Choose Your Words

Whatever one wishes to say, there is one noun only by which to express it, one verb only to give it life, one adjective only which will describe it. —Gustave Flaubert

For your born writer, nothing is so healing as the realization that he has come upon the right word. —Catherine Drinker Bowen

Good writing evokes sensations in the reader—not the fact that it’s raining, but the feeling of being rained on. Regardless of genre, form, or subject matter, the goal of the writer is to breathe life into his content so that he might reach another human being and touch his soul, perhaps turn his mind on the axis of possibility. It entices us into subjects we would have declared dull if not for the language that brought them to life. Though we may not have experienced the events captured on the page, the author drew us in and invited us to step into another world.


“Words are things; and a small drop of ink, falling like dew upon a thought, produces that which makes thousands, perhaps millions, think.”

Thomas W. Higginson—

“A good phrase may outweigh a poor library.”

John Ruskin—

“Say all you have to say in the fewest possible words, or your reader will be sure to skip them; and in the plainest possible

words, or he will certainly misunderstand them.”

To his publisher, Hemingway wrote—

“As the contract only mentions excisions it is understood of course that no alterations of words shall be made without my approval. This protects you as much as it does me as the stories are written so tight and so hard that the alteration of word can throw an entire story out of key.”

Le mot juste, in Flaubert’s terms, the correct word is the only word that will do—

“Whatever one wishes to say, there is one noun only by which to express it, one verb only to give it life, one adjective only which will describe it. One must search until one has discovered them, this noun, this verb, this adjective, and never rest content with approximations, never resort to trickery, however happy, or to vulgarisms, in order to dodge the difficulty.”

Gene Fowler—

“Writing is easy. It’s just a matter of staring at the blank page until your forehead bleeds.”

Good writing goes beyond correct syntax and proper grammar. Good writing is writing that works. It’s writing that captivates the mind and attention of others, writing that impacts an audience. Good writing accomplishes its goal, whether that goal aspires to inform, sway, sadden, anger, instruct or entertain.

Good writing reveals itself by hitting its target. Writing doesn’t work if it doesn’t do the job the writer intended. If it dulls the interest of those it should persuade, it fails. If it alienates those it’s meant to draw—no matter how cleverly crafted or eloquently stated—it defeats its purpose. If it merely entertains when it should educate, it neglects its responsibility. Though grammatically correct, even clearly organized, if the writing misses the writer’s mark, it doesn’t work.

The English language comprises more than one million words, providing English writers with the largest lexicon in the world from which to choose the precise words to meet their needs—words that take into account imagery, connotation, tone, degree of formality, and intensity.


What does a particular word choice bring to mind? Choosing the right word gives us the right sound when we read of tinkling sleigh bells; clanging fire bells; mellow chiming wedding bells; tolling, moaning, and groaning funeral bells.


While the literal or explicit meaning of a word or phrase is its denotation, the implication of a word or phrase is its connotation. Words often have similar denotations but different connotations, and you might choose or avoid a word because of its connotation. For example, although one denotation of rugged is “strongly built,” the connotation is masculine; hence, you might choose to describe a woman as athletic rather than rugged. Likewise, although one denotation of pretty is “having conventional elements of beauty,” the connotation is feminine; thus, most men would probably prefer being referred to as handsome. Infamous means well-known, but not in positive sense. Nude is much more about art and the feeling of freedom, while naked connotes shame—the fear of seeing, being seen, or being sinful.  “Nude is about exaltation and the greatness of the Creator,” says Bernard Poulin. “Naked is about guilt, anxiety, and self-loathing.”


While the denotation of a word expresses something about the person or thing you write about, the tone of a word expresses your attitude toward the person or thing. The following two sentences have similar denotations, but very different tones:

:               The senator showed himself to be incompetent.

The senator showed himself to be a fool.


Some dictionaries indicate whether a word is formal, informal, vulgar, or obscene; most often, though, your sensitivity to the language will guide your choice for a given context. In writing a report about the symptoms of radiation sickness, for example, you would probably want to talk about “nausea and vomiting” rather than “nausea and puking.”

Be aware, though, that achieving an appropriate level of formality is as much a question of choosing less formal as it is of choosing more formal words. Take though and however. Of the two, however is the formal choice, so formal that it’s encroaching on obsolete. The same is true of the word upon.

Strunk and White—

Avoid the elaborate, the pretentious, the coy, and the cute. The more sophisticated your audience, the more likely they are to be put off, rather than impressed, by inflated prose.


Intensity is the degree of emotional content of a word—from objective to subjective, mild to strong, euphemistic to inflammatory.

Elicit, extract, and extort, for example, are broadly synonymous, distinguished only by the degree of force that they imply. Elicit, the mildest of the three, means to draw or coax out, and can suggest an element of craftiness: you can elicit information without the informant being aware that he has divulged it. Extract suggests a stronger and more persistent effort, possibly involving threats or importuning. Extort is stronger still and suggests violent repercussions in exchange for noncompliance.

A similar example, wildlife managers will talk about harvesting deer rather than killing them. Choosing a less intense word or phrase can avoid offending or inciting readers by masking the unsavory nature of a situation.

George Orwell, in Politics and the English Language, wrote—

In our time, political speech and writing are largely the defense of the indefensible…. Thus, political language has to consist largely of euphemism, question begging, and sheer cloudy vagueness.

Ultimately, you must rely on your sensitivity to the language, to your topic, and to your audience to guide your choice for a given context.

In his novel The Right Stuff, Tom Wolfe defines the term “euphemism” through the narrator’s gross neglect of its use.

When the final news came, there would be a ring at the front door—a wife in this situation finds herself staring at the front door as if she no longer owns it or controls it—a and outside the door would be a man… come to inform her that unfortunately something has happened out there, and her husband’s body now lies incinerated in the swamps or the pines or the palmetto grass, “burned beyond recognition,” which anyone who had been around an air base very long (fortunately Jane had not) realized was quite an artful euphemism to describe a human body that now looked like an enormous fowl that has burned up in a stove, burned a blackish brown all over, greasy and blistered, fried, in a word, with not only the entire face and all the hair and the ears burned off, not to mention all the clothing, but also the hands and feet, with what remains of the arms and legs bent at the knees and elbows and burned into absolutely rigid angles, burned a greasy blackish brown like the bursting body itself, so that this husband, father, officer, gentleman, this ornamentum of some mother’s eye, His Majesty the Baby of just twenty-odd years back, has been reduced to a charred hulk with wings and shanks sticking out of it.

Jarod Kintz―

“Writers fish for the right words like fishermen fish for, um, whatever those aquatic creatures with fins and gills are called.”

Written by The UnNovelist
The Unnovelist