It’s something every English professor has said time and time again over the ages: be meticulous with your word choice. As students, most “wannabe writers” didn’t listen.
Not until they graduated and faced the real world anyway.
Truth is, word choice applies in all areas of life, whether it’s an article, a breakup, or a job interview. Word choice can make or break an opportunity, just like it can elevate or deflate a sentence.
Something Important Might Not Be Anymore
To build on what Maria Rosales, best-selling author and History professor as Duke University wrote in her article “The Importance of Word Choice,” words can poke fun. Much like anything else, there is a time and a place, however. Selecting funny words for serious chapters can actually suck the importance right out of the contex.
For instance, when a beloved character in a book series dies, fans are a) devastated and angry and b) expectant that the death be written eloquently. If the author suddenly decided to poke fun with the use of silly descriptions, there would be an uproar. Suddenly, rather than reading something like “Roger put down the knife and stared at what he’d done,” it would read something like a joke. Something like “Roger put down the butter knife and stared at his brother. He didn’t look so good anymore, he noticed as he stared at what he’d done.”
In the same vein, when poor word choice is used, and makes important scenes anything but, it lessens impact. Head-on conflict between the hero and villain doesn’t seem so rewarding. Love doesn’t seem as profound. And friendship seems surface level, much like it would be in a stuffy, dry job with no one your age.
For instance, in Wuthering Heights, there is a scene in chapter 16 where Heathcliff asks Catherine to haunt him. He is so grief-stricken, that he desires her to haunt him and drive him mad, taking any form possible, as long as he doesn’t have to live without her.
If someone were to change the wording for this scene, the impact wouldn’t be as grand.
“I believe–I know that ghosts have wandered the earth. Be with me always–take any form–drive me mad. Only do not leave me in this abyss, where I cannot find you! Oh, God! It is unutterable! I cannot live without my life! I cannot live without my soul!”
“I think ghosts have wandered the earth. Be with me always–take any form–drive me crazy. Only don’t leave here here, where you’re not around! Oh, God! I can’t even speak it. I can’t live without my life, my soul!”
Completely Morphing The Message
Sometimes poor word choice can lead to completely changing the message. That can in turn cause confusion, making the readers feel misled.
A great example of this was writing book reports in school, remember those? Ironically enough, they helped English majors critique plot elements, and gave students the skill set to become promising book bloggers. More than that, they showcased poor word choice.
When I was young, I read Hannibal Rising by Thomas Harris. Now, I’d been watching rated R movies since the dawn of time and the book didn’t bother me any. In fact, as a lover of all things dark, I loved it. Problem was, the class got assigned a book report, and we were all swimming in homework.
So, logically, I wrote a report using Hannibal as my topic and changed all the “eating” of people with “consuming.” Hilarious as it is now, it was horrible at the time. My English teacher looked at me, completely baffled, wondering why I’d chosen to censor the word “eat.”
Good question. Consumed refers to absorbing, or destroying something by using it up. When applied to consuming another human being, it…morphs the message. Maybe if I hadn’t censored it for her innocent nature, she would have given me an A+?
Word choice is everything to a writer. It can please readers, or confuse them. It can make scenes grand, or deflate their importance. And what’s more is that it takes a long time to master words and become an astounding wordsmith.
But it’s worth it once you can look back and laugh at your previous choices.