Part of the fun of working for a great agency is being encouraged to think. Here are some of the things we’re thinking about.

A Word About Word Choice

July 18, 2013 Bradford Group Administrator

A couple months ago, my sister emailed me a scanned article from The New Yorker with the note, “I’ve attached an article that I enjoyed from my New Yorker. It’s about the act of writing and editing, and I thought if I enjoyed it as a non-writer, that you as a writer would enjoy it as well.”

I usually have a hard time digesting my sister’s reading suggestions, not because they aren’t good, but because they’re usually 7+ pages long—as this one was—and require substantial refection so I can say something intelligent about them the next time that we chat. I love my sister, but who has the time?

I decided to power through “Draft No. 4” though, which was the title of this particular New Yorker article by John McPhee, and I’m so glad that I did. In short: Mind blown.

The particular section that changed my world talked about word choice, thesauruses and the dictionary.

Dictionary-vs-ThesaurusWhen writing for business or pleasure, we spend a lot of time on word choice. For business, finding the perfect word is by far the best way to establish tone, especially when you’re ghost writing a column or blog entry under a client’s byline. When writing for pleasure, there’s a simple joy in choosing the best word or phrase that’s both witty and succinct.

When a friend’s boyfriend asked me once why I majored in creative writing in college, I told him that I liked, and I quote, “the construction of words into sentences.” I guess this explanation rang odd, because he still brings it up today when he tells the “when I met Erin story.” Needless to say, that wonderful couple eventually invited me to be a reader in their wedding.

This brings me back to The New Yorker article, which advised that when searching for the perfect word: look not in a thesaurus, but in the dictionary.

In the search for words, thesauruses are useful things, but they don’t talk about the words they list. They are also dangerous. They can lead you to choose a polysyllabic and fuzzy word when a simple and clear one is better.

In contrast,

The dictionary definitions of words you are trying to replace are far more likely to help you out than a scattershot wad from a thesaurus…At best, thesauruses are mere rest stops in the search for the mot juste. Your destination is the dictionary.

Again: Mind blown. For years, I’ve been using the thesaurus to season my writing with a bit of the unexpected. Has this practice at times obscured the clarity of a particular piece? I can objectively and humbly say, yes. This is especially clear when looking back at advertising copy, which by definition needs to be snappy, yet unique. (Not to mention years of obscure poetry I’ve been trying to pass of as “too complex” to understand).

Maybe you don’t geek out when editing or find pleasure in circling typos that you see in best sellers, but that doesn’t mean you have to hide behind the façade of “non-writer” and resign yourself to subpar communications.

I wanted to share this self-realization on the nitty-gritty writing task of word choice for two reasons. First, to impart a lesson that changed my writing for the better and could possibly help yours.

Maybe you don’t geek out when editing or find pleasure in circling typos that you see in best sellers, but that doesn’t mean you have to hide behind the façade of “non-writer” and resign yourself to subpar communications.

One of the most rewarding parts of my job is helping others communicate, or to “translate,” as we often say, the stories of their businesses. That brings me to my second reason for this blog: to remind you and me alike to constantly challenge ourselves to learn something new within our professions. Your organization, co-workers and customers will only benefit from your new expertise.

But really, if you want to know the ultimate lesson of this blog, it is, of course: siblings know best.

Yep, that one, the one on the left, she always knows best.

Yep, that one, the one on the left, she always knows best.

2 comments on “A Word About Word Choice
  1. Ray Bingham says:

    Erin, as a writer I’ve always preferred the dictionary. I like to look at all of the other words around the one I’m trying to find. I enjoyed your blog.

  2. Heidi says:

    Erin your sister is right 99% of the time. At least that’s how it appears to be in my life!
    ~Heidi

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