Right Word? Too Many? What Do I Mean?

By: Michelle Gunnin

As writers, we use our words.  What is difficult for others to say, we can pen in a few minutes.  I have found that this gift is in high demand.  I have been asked to write Letters to the Editor expressing someone else’s opinion.  I have been asked to write blogs, thank you notes, grants, research papers, obituaries, weekly newsletters, and even books for other people. In some cases, I don’t even mind writing these things because it is a challenge to me to pick the right words to express different types of thoughts, which is fun. Wordplay is something that allows my creativity to flow.

I love to experiment with words and phrasing, but there are those in my life who would curl into the fetal position in a corner if they had to write even a few sentences.  When writers have a word limit, it is difficult for us to stop because we have so many words that want to get out of us. I usually have to cut half of what I write, and I bet you do too. Still, I have edited the work of college students who change the font size of their periods and the spacing between sentences in order to stretch their work to make a page limit. The first question I get asked as a teacher about a writing assignment is “How long does it have to be?”  That question always frustrates me.  I have learned that saying “write until it’s finished,” doesn’t work, because they don’t know when it is finished!  As writers, our minds work in stories, lists, and ideas that circle back around to a natural conclusion. That is not the case with most people.  Therefore, written communication is difficult for them and they think of us as strange magical beings whose superpower is words.

Then there are those people who write pages and pages and say nothing. Most of them are aspiring writers.  Most of us, were at one time in our lives, just like them.  We were proud of our ability to write lots of words.  It wasn’t even hard for us to do.  Fortunately for me, in high school, I had a teacher who saw some potential in all those pages.  She was the first to teach me about word choice. In her class, I learned that there is a difference between a writer and a wordsmith – a person who writes vs. a person who is especially skilled with words. This teacher carried herself in a regal manner, and when she read literature to us with her African accent, I was mesmerized.  She pointed out specific phrases and how they enhanced the meaning of the story.  It was the first time I learned that the way you say something matters just as much as how many words there are. I found out that most of the time, less is more.  It was decades before the seeds she planted took root in my life, and longer still before they began to sprout.

Writing isn’t about the number of words written; it’s about their content. It is not enough to write a ton of words.  It is how you write them and which ones you choose that matter most.  Here are some things you want to avoid when choosing your words.

  • Weak words- Words that do not create a picture in your head should be excluded. ‘I went to the store’ can be pictured in many different ways depending on who the reader is.  ‘I jogged to the store in the rain’ is much more specific. Choose words which are clear and precise. There is so much nuance in the meaning of words that it is vital that you pick the exact one which means the exact thing you are trying to say. This is where all those vocabulary tests you took in school come in handy!
  • Repeated ideas- Saying the same thing over and over in different ways is not helping your reader. There is no need to be redundant.  Read through your work and look specifically for repetition of thoughts.  Pick your best sentence and cut the others…or combine a few so-so sentences and make one spectacular one.  However you do it, make sure you are not rambling.
  • Details that do not move the story forward- Look at each detail and ask yourself, ‘Is this necessary to the action of the story?’ Do you have to say your main character got up in the morning and had breakfast?  Or can you skip to the action of what happened on the way to work and trust your reader to figure out that this character has a morning routine?  Readers are smart and they should be trusted.  Do not insult their intelligence and frustrate them by spoon feeding them unnecessary details.
  • Unnecessary Dialog- How many times have you read a book and gotten bogged down in long arduous dialog? Similar to the details in my last point, a dialog should always be moving your story forward.  It also needs to be in an authentic voice, meaning be true to your character. If you need to reveal traits of your hero or show the dark side of your villain, dialog is the way to do it.  Just be aware that dialog which goes on and on without a direct connection to the story, will cause the reader to lose interest.
  • Overuse of Figurative Language- When learning to use figurative language, my students sometimes go overboard. Once they learn the power of similes, for example, they use one in every sentence. Identifying a type of figurative language is much different than knowing how to use it effectively.  Figurative language brings interest and thought to a piece of writing, however, if there is too much of it the audience cannot follow what is happening.  It should be sprinkled throughout, not poured.
  • Too Wordy-Sometimes in an effort to avoid weak words we can overuse strong ones. There are stories out there that read like a vocabulary workbook.  Every word is flowery and resplendent. Using fancy words just to impress can be overkill.  It is like the author is trying too hard, and the reader picks up on that right away.

Well written work requires the careful consideration of the words used. Word choice is a skill that is developed over time, with practice.  It requires learning to analyze your own writing. Are they the right words? Are there too many? Did I cut the unnecessary ones?

When you take the time to edit and revise, you’ll know when the words convey your intent – and so will your readers.

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  1. I love your thought “write until it’s finished,” That is the view I have adopted for the work I publish. Some pieces are short, they can be complete and satisfactory in 450 words. Others need to add a couple of thousand extra words. Completeness is the challenge. There are times though, when it can be hard to get the right words out.

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