Words are clothing for ideas. What’s in your wardrobe?
Do you use the same lexicon of drab verbs and adjectives that you’ve always used? That’s like wearing the same sweatpants and t-shirt every day. It gets boring, for you and the people around you.
If you want your ideas to shine, dress them appropriately for the occasion. Examine the words you choose and make sure they fit. Want to attract the eye? Give your writing a bit of bling.
The Writing Wardrobe Challenge
Maybe it’s time to update your usual word choices. We can all do this, no matter where we are in our writing careers.
Here’s my writing wardrobe challenge:
Commit to improving at least one word choice in everything significant that you write—whether a chapter of a book, a blog post, or an email to your team.
Start with a single word in each piece. Tiny shifts in word choice can have a major impact on the reader.
Look through your writing for a dull, lifeless verb or a boring adjective like big or new. And then go shopping for something better.
Here are a few ground rules for this exercise.
First, have fun
If you remember cramming long lists of esoteric words as a student, you may shudder at the idea of using a thesaurus. Even the word thesaurus sound stuffy or arcane.
Traditional schooling, with its vocabulary lists and specialized terminology, can kill the joy in word shopping.
Let’s change our approach to choosing words. Instead of a dusty reference tome, think of the thesaurus (whether print or online) as a shop stocked with sparkling words for your selection.
As with clothing, you can shop in the real world (the print thesaurus) or online. I love the online ones because it’s so easy to follow links. Your word processing software probably already includes a thesaurus function.
My favorite is the online site WordHippo. Its pink hippo mascot makes me feel like I’m on a safari rather than in the reference section. (In my imagination, it’s photo safari, not a shooting one. No words were injured in creating this post.)
Make sure whatever you use offers a lot of choices (a plethora, perhaps!)
Type your targeted replacement word into the online thesaurus and scan the results. Examine the adjacent options that aren’t quite right. You might follow another word on an entirely different word safari. That’s fun, and can fuel your creativity.
As you shop, keep the following guidelines in mind.
Think strong vs. long
Unless you’re writing for academic purposes, don’t try to impress readers with long words if you see better, shorter alternatives. Too many multi-syllable words make your writing dense. (The word for that is sesquipedalian.)
Look for a simpler, stronger word instead of an impressive, graduate school word.
For example, consider replacing utilize with use, indeterminate with unknown.
Don’t sacrifice all the long words in your writing, of course. Keep the ones that fit perfectly or that you enjoy. But pay attention to how many jumbo words you pile into the prose.
Consider replacing options with simple two-word phrases: Spell out could replace explicate.
Do you want to be precise or poetic?
Sometimes you want to find the word that exactly represents what you’re saying. Precision matters. A thesaurus can help you find the word that exactly fits what you want.
But you might want to experiment with words that have multiple meanings s—long as you understand those meanings.
For example, pay attention to what you feel when you read the following sentence:
Approach the writing process with grace.
The word grace might refer to elegance, kindness, mercy, even the prayer said before a meal. Almost any of those nuances work in this sentence. The reader will construct the meaning that works best for them.
When you used nuanced words, your writing takes a poetic turn.
Search with your ears, too
Do you hear an inner voice reading aloud in your head as you read silently? According to a survey by psychology professor Ruvanee Vilhauer, nearly 88 percent of “hear” inside our heads as we read.
So, pay attention to sound of a word.
Look for verbs that have a real presence on the page. Short words that end with a strong consonant jump out: plonk, wart, muck, thud.
Hard-to-pronounce may slow the reader down. They’re like speed bumps in the writing road.
For example, people may stumble when reading ignominious if they have to think of how to pronounce it. Shameful is easier. Or, replace hegemony (where does the accent land?) with authority, rule, or control, depending on the situation.
Dig through your own closet
Have you ever cleaned out your closet and found something that you love, but forgot you had? (Please tell me I’m not the only one who does this!)
Shopping for words can be a similar experience.
Your replacement word doesn’t have to be new to you. Perhaps you hadn’t thought of using this word in this context.
Consider metaphorical options: you might trumpet your success, or slither into the room.
Expand your wardrobe
Have fun. See what you find. Mess around.
As you make this part of your writing practice, you’ll find that a richer variety of words start appearing as you write. You might just add new favorites into your usual rotation.
For more on the closet metaphor, check out this post on Tidying Up Your Writing.
For other ways to elevate your writing, see this 10-Minute Exercise to Improve Your Writing.