Editorial services by Laura E. Goodin

The Right Word
by Laura E. Goodin (©2009)

Clear writing starts with clear words. A lot of writers — particularly academic writers — are tempted to pack as many complicated words in their writing as possible. They may feel that it sounds more knowledgeable, or that they're explaining things in the kind of detail their readers want. Sadly, it usually only makes the meaning less clear — which makes the writer sound less knowledgeable!

Short and Simple
Use short, straightforward words — the words you'd use if you were explaining something to your friend, or to someone at a party who asked you, "What's your research about?" While this can be taken to extremes (see the section on tone below), on the whole it's a good guideline. Your instructors will appreciate the clarity. Say what you mean, and no more!

Here are some examples:

Don't use When you can use
is incapable of can't
location place
subsequent to after
is commensurate with fits
over the last several weeks recently
during the ensuing hours soon
is dependent depends
desist from stop
aforementioned Frankly, I can't think of a single reason to use this ever.
it is apparent that This, either.
at that point in time then
at this point in time now
in a location a large distance from far from
in a downward direction down
the issuance of issuing

The simpler choice is nearly always the better choice.

Another aspect of picking the right word is tone — the feeling or mood the writing conveys. At one extreme is text messaging and tweets; these are very informal and casual indeed, and usually people take very little care about spelling, grammar, and word choice. At the other extreme are legal documents, which are entirely formal; writers of these documents usually have almost no leeway in how they can express themselves, and they must adhere to cast-iron standards for which words they choose.

Here's an example of the same basic sentence, written using tones from less formal to more formal:

  • This paper will show you that having too much stuff makes you miserable.
  • This paper shows that material possessions make people unhappy.
  • This paper shows a direct correlation between per capita income and personal dissatisfaction.

If you're writing academic papers, you will usually want to go for a more formal tone: it's what your instructor is expecting, for one thing, and when done properly it shows that your ideas are logical and disciplined. However, you probably already see that trying for a formal tone means you can't always use the shortest word. It may take several passes through the document to get the tone just the way you want it. One way to check your tone is to read the piece out loud. Does it sound the way you'd want it to sound for its intended audience?

When in doubt, err on the side of short and simple words, and ask a friend (or an editor!) to read it and tell you whether they think it's too casual.

Spelling and Grammar
Nothing ruins your credibility faster than a misspelled or misused word. Instructors may overlook what is obviously a typo ("teh", for example), but they will never forgive using "there" instead of "their" or "they're", or "it's" instead of "its". There are thousands of web sites that can help you sort out which one you mean; here's one, and here's another. Use your favorite search engine and search on grammar tips to find more.

An article this short can't possibly tell you everything you need to know about choosing the right word. But if you keep these ideas in mind (keeping it short and simple, using the right tone, and being very, very careful about spelling and grammar), you'll see your writing improve.

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