Fundamentals: Word Choice

Word choice issues don’t fit in as grammar or punctuation problems, as they may not be “technically” wrong. However, many word choice problems will bore, annoy, or confuse your readers. Here is a rundown of the most common issues.

Repetition of words, phrases, or ideas

Writing takes longer than reading. Writers often repeat themselves because they don’t realize that a reader will have read the same thing only seconds or minutes beforehand. Repetition can also happen when working on a piece, quitting, and picking it up later.

The easy way to solve this problem is read your story aloud before you post it. Don’t just read it in your head—actually read it aloud. You might also try word cloud generators or other tools that list the frequency of all the words in your manuscript.

Bad: He walked out of the room. He walked down the hall. He walked into the bedroom, then walked to the window, then climbed out.

Good: He walked out of the parlor and crept down the hall. He tiptoed through bedroom, past the sleeping rottweilers, and climbed out the window.

This applies to repetitive ideas as well as words.

Bad: Beneath John’s hat brim, his face bore the creases of long days working in the sun. He smiled and grabbed my butt, wrinkles turning his browned face into an aerial view of eastern Utah. When I slapped him, his face fell like an old leather handbag full of doorknobs hitting the floor. I wasn’t going to take that kind of behavior from any man, much less a man with skin like a crumpled paper bag.

OK, got it, he’s got a wrinkly face. Is there anything else interesting about him?

Good: Beneath John’s hat brim, his face bore the creases of long days working in the sun. He grabbed my butt, grinning with jagged, rotten teeth. I slapped him, and his shoulders fell with his smile as he jerked away from me. I wasn’t going to take that kind of behavior from any man, much less a creepy old circus magician.

Repetitive sentence structure

When all sentences are the same length, the prose becomes boring to read. Vary the structure.

Mix short sentences with long, flowing sentences. Short sentences have impact. Long sentences are wonderful when you have a clear idea to communicate to the reader and want them to follow it through to the end. Sentence variety is another issue that can usually be discovered by reading aloud.

Bad: “She was a thief. You got a belief. She stole my heart. She stole my cat. Then we broke up. I met someone new.”

Good: “She was a thief. Believe me, she stole my heart and my cat. I ended up leaving her, and eventually I met someone new.”

More examples

Passive voice

Passive voice is caused by a reversal of the verb and subject from the more conventional active voice. Nothing is technically wrong about these sentences, but passive voice results in extra words, and typically an over-use of the verb “to be”, often in the form of “was” or “were”.

In passive voice, the object (the gold medal) comes before the verb (won).
A gold medal was won by the snowboarder.

In active voice, the subject (the snowboarder) comes before the verb (won).
Good: The snowboarder won the gold medal.

Bad: The laser gun was fired by the solders.
Good: The soldiers fired the laser guns.

Passive voice can also result in misplaced modifiers, resulting in nonsense (Robert didn’t drink the fridge, he drank the beers).
Bad: There were beers in the fridge that Robert drank.
Good: Robert drank the beers from the fridge.

More examples

Overuse of filler words

The fact is, the list of words that don’t really need to be there is very long indeed.
The fact is, The list of words that don’t really need to be there is very long indeed.
The fact is, The list of unnecessary words that don’t really need to be there is very long indeed.

Filler words and phrases muddy your prose, making it hard work for your reader to wade through. Besides obvious phrases such as “due to the fact that,” “the fact is,” and “in order to”, there are countless other filler words that sneak by more easily. In general, if you can remove one of these words, and the story still makes sense, you probably should:

a bit, a lot, actually, all, almost, anyway, apparently, basically, definitely, especially, essentially, even, honestly, just, like, literally, obviously, only, perhaps, probably, quite, really, seriously, simply, so, something, truly, very, well

Use stronger, more specific words if you can:

If someone is very tired they are exhausted
If someone is really sure they are convinced
If someone is suddenly attacked they are ambushed

Be specific rather than approximate:

If someone is about six feet tall they are six feet tall
If someone is perhaps forty years old they are forty years old
If someone is a bit under the weather they are under the weather

Overuse of vague words and phrases

Closely related to filler words, vague words add meaning, but often not enough. Look out for vague adjectives like “beautiful, nice, good, kind” etc. Look out for vague nouns like “thing, something, somewhere, somewhat” etc. That’s not to say you should remove these words altogether, but be aware of them.

Bad: The Mona Lisa was a beautiful painting.
What makes her beautiful?
Good: The Mona Lisa’s soft, knowing smile, blushing cheeks and deep eyes struck a chord in my soul.

Bad: Something about the room troubled him.
What was this ‘something’?
Good: In the bedroom, a velvet painting of a clown family loomed over the bed.

Bad: He leaned against a tree and began to smoke.
It’s descriptive, but it’s not specific. The more specific, the more real it will be to the reader (as long as it’s not ridiculous). Compare the different images here:
Good: He leaned against the rough bark of a bristlecone pine, pulled out a Marlboro, and lit it with a match in his cupped hands.
Good: He leaned against the gray trunk of a weeping willow, packed some tobacco in a corncob pipe, and lit it with a stick from the campfire.
Good: He leaned against the bigleaf maple in the shade of its red canopy, carefully positioned the brass hookah, and lit the bowl with a miniature blowtorch.

Overly realistic dialogue

Everyone wants their dialogue to be realistic right? The problem is that no one actually wants to read realistic dialogue. Small talk, throat-clearing words (“Well,”) and pauses (um, uh, y’know) are normal in real life, but reading it is dull.

In the distant past, long-winded and relaxed conversations were the norm in literature, but if you look at the classics that are still widely read (from Pride and Prejudice to Tale of Two Cities to Huck Finn), you’ll find that they keep the plot and dialogue moving briskly. Today, readers are so used to prose and dialogue without fluff, they will be annoyed or bored by it.

Bad: “Well, the thing is, um, so, you know, the other day I saw my ex-wife at the bookstore.”
One of those openers is more than enough to convey hesitation, or you can leave them out entirely.
Good: “The other day I saw my ex-wife at the bookstore.”

Bill waved to Dan as he approached. “What’s up?”
Dan took a seat at the cafe table. “Not much. Nice weather though.”
“Yeah, sunny and warm. Did you see the big sportsball game?”
“Oh yeah, our team scored so many points. Good game.”
Bill squinted. “Anyway, here’s how the diamond heist is going down.”

There’s no need for all the filler! Just get straight to the good stuff.

Dan glanced around and joined Bill at the cafe table.
Bill squinted. “Here’s how the diamond heist is going down.”

Stilted Dialogue

Another common issue with dialogue is that it can be “stilted” meaning that it is robotic, stiff, or awkward, much like walking on stilts when compared to natural walking. The best cure for this is to read your dialogue aloud, because your ear will know (if it doesn’t, study some award-winning books and see how they write tight dialogue). Overall, you’ll find that stilted dialogue typically doesn’t use enough contractions, has too many opening and closing phrases, and doesn’t sound the way people actually talk.

“How are you doing today, Mr. William B. Williams?”
“How am I doing today? Why, I am very well, thank you, Ms. Joan Rutherford. And how might you be on this fine evening in May?”
Good grief! Unless this is for comedic effect, we need to tighten that up.
“How are you, Will?”
“Good enough. You?”
“How are you, Mr. Williams?”
“Very fine, Ms. Rutherford, very fine indeed.”

Purple Prose

Purple prose is a name for overly-complex writing that distracts the reader and breaks their immersion, rather than immersing them deeper in the story. Typically the author is trying to show off or trying to seem smart and poetic, but they end up working against these goals.

Purple prose typically includes overwrought ideas that could be more simply communicated, long-winded descriptions, mixed metaphors, and unnecessarily large/complex words, all of which distract the reader and break the immersion such that the reader is paying attention to the words and not imagining a story.

I’m not going to try and write purple prose, because I don’t want it polluting my brain. Here’s an example from this article:

The mahogany-haired adolescent girl glanced fleetingly at her rugged paramour, a crystalline sparkle in her eyes as she gazed happily upon his countenance. It was filled with an expression as enigmatic as shadows in the night. She pondered thoughtfully whether it would behoove her to request that she continue to follow him on his noble mission… 

Let’s take a stab at rewriting it so it’s both more interesting and less ridiculous.

Jane glanced across the table at Jack and brushed her long brown hair behind her ear. She blinked her eyes slowly, trying to make them sparkle in the candlelight, a move that her sister had said “always worked.”

Jack drained his mug of red ale and wiped the foam and slop from his grizzled, squared-off jaw. “I’ve been thinking you should get going.”

She nearly dropped her wine goblet, sloshing a bit over the rim. Get going! He was trying to give her a brush-off? She fingered the stiletto concealed in her dress. If he wasn’t going to take the bait, she’d have to find another way to get those jewels.

Writers of purple prose often confuse their writing with poetic prose. This, however, is something else entirely. Part of your writing style is how you use words: are you direct, clear, and simple, a “Hemingway” style writer? Or are you poetic, emotional, and vivid, a “Bradbury” style writer? It doesn’t matter, as long as your style of writing isn’t distracting or pretentious.