How Word Choice Affects Your Tone

Words build up. Words destroy. The life-bringing and death-delivering power of words is highlighted throughout the Bible. The proof of it is punctuated in our lives by every flash of anxiety that precludes a tough conversation or desperate wish that we could obliviate something we wrote or said. If our spoken words have such power, then our written words could very well echo into eternity, and an appropriate amount of diligence should always be exercised when choosing them. In this blog post, I will walk through the basic elements of word choice and a few tips to avoid common pitfalls and help us choose our words wisely.

Elements of Word Choice

Nouns and verbs.

Nouns and verbs are the marrow of your writing. Done well, they look innocuous but provide crucial emotional depth. When weak, the rest of your writing lacks essential oxygen and life. Before you look at your adjectives and adverbs, examine your nouns and verbs and ask yourself these questions.

1. Are they specific? Do they give me a sense of where, what, when, and who?
2. Do they evoke a dynamic, living image?

Sometimes, your answer to these questions may be no. You might be purposefully vague to create an air of mystery around a character or situation (fiction) or because you don’t have all the information but still want to be true to the material (nonfiction). The majority of the time, however, you want your nouns and verbs to be strong enough to paint an image or illustrate a point in the reader’s mind. As an editor, I advocate for clarity and consistency first and then, as much as possible, correctness. Language is a living creature, and part of the joy of writing and communicating is discovering new ways to express things, and noun and verb choice is especially important to achieve this goal. Here’s an example of how you can play with the strength of your nouns and verbs.

“Nouning” or nominalization is changing verbs to nouns as a way to emphasize a person, place, or thing instead of an action. The way that we write about people changes the way we see them. Look at this example:

He was addicted. (Focuses on his state.)
He was an addict. (Focuses on his identity.)

I came to the realization that she knew. (Focuses on the process of realizing.)
I realized she knew. (Focuses on her knowledge.)

While nouning often spices up your writing, helping you characterize people and situations, these constructions can sometimes weaken it or create unnecessary wordiness (as in the second example), so pay attention to the emphasis, and look for empty words and redundancies.

Similarly, “verbing” or verbification is changing nouns to verbs, and this longstanding, largely unconscious practice has gained fame recently thanks to the internet. A classic example is “to google” from “Google,” though there are many others—to friend, to dialogue, to elbow—that have been creeping into English dictionaries for hundreds of years.

Judicious verbing and nouning can make your language stand out. Your nouns and verbs should be unique to your story, your world, and your main character or characters. When they are, your prose will come to life.

Adjectives and adverbs.

Adjectives and adverbs are the decor we use to accentuate our nouns and verbs. Countless grammarians before me have urged writers to sprinkle them rather than dump them into their sentences. Never use two when one will do—you know the drill. While that advice is solid, it hems writers in rather than freeing them to explore their language. Knowing what words to remove can be helpful for second (and third and fourth and fifth) drafts, but if we always delete without considering what we wish to communicate, our writing remains weak.

Examine an adjective or adverb in the context of its noun or verb partner and replace the whole phrase with something stronger. Change adjectives or adverbs that contradict or confuse the meaning you wish the reader to receive “Create clarity, not confusion” below for an example). Some people decry adverbs, but what they’re really advocating against is using adverbs to prop up weak and vague verbs or sentences. Treat adjectives similarly. If you stumble upon a really beautiful, incredibly amazing fluffy four-legged creature in your writing, condense the description into a stunning show dog and leave your readers with a more concrete image. Let me show you how.

Word Choice Tips

1. Be precise and accurate.

It isn’t enough to simply have strong words—you want to your words to match your story and reflect the emotional center or point of your scene or argument. Enter the concepts of precision and accuracy.

Precision in word choice refers to choosing words that are concrete, timely, and explicit. Avoiding vague language is crucial if you want to drag readers into the action by the scruff of the neck. Use precise words to enhance your imagery, elicit guttural reactions from your readers, and establish world-building. Look at the difference between these two sentences:

He walked into the building.
Dragging his injured foot, he threw the door open, inhaling the dank, warm air of the tavern’s common room.

The first sentence could describe any man entering any building. It doesn’t give us a sense of place, time, or character. The second sentence uses precise nouns (injured foot, door, air, tavern) and verbs (drag, thrust, inhale) to connect the reader to the time and place of this specific character.

Accuracy in word choice refers to how closely your words reflect what you want readers to imagine or feel when reading. Whether it is a particular visual image or the tone of the scene, character, or argument, you can use precise language but entirely miss communicating what you intend. For instance, what if I told you the man entering the tavern in the above example was returning from a relaxing day at his job to attend a birthday party? Would you believe me? If not, what words communicate the opposite? How might you change the sentence to reflect a more accurate reality? Examine your scenes for words that aren’t from the right culture or time period or words that don’t match the character’s intent.

2. Create clarity, not confusion.

A wonderful beta reader of mine recently caught a word choice contradiction in my fantasy novel. My main character had timidly thrust something into her pocket, and my reader was confused. How was my main character really feeling? Was she timid if she was shoving something so roughly into her pocket? I corrected the description by removing the adverb timidly. My character was irritated, so her movement wouldn’t be timid. I reworked her timidity into the scene using other actions. Examine your adverbs and adjectives for these contradictions especially. They should enhance, not muddle, the emotional undertone of your strong nouns and verbs.

3. Use purposeful repetition.

When I edit my own work, I often repeat certain words or phrases in spurts, often using the same term or construction four chapters in a row, and then never using it again. Look out for these words when you revise. Make sure that the words you repeat are chosen for their rhythm and for a reason, and make note of unintentional repetition as you read. Tools like ProWritingAid and the statistics in Scrivener can help you identify these words in your story, but the good, old-fashioned Find-and-Replace feature of most word processors can serve the same function if you notate manually.

4. Avoid thesaurus attacks.

When you are searching for new terms to use, research their etymology. Do they fit the setting and time of your manuscript? If in dialogue, would the character or characters in the scene use that kind of language? Does it match the diversity of your own voice and would it resonate with your target readers? For my speculative fiction authors that like to create their own words (or even their own languages), this is not limited to English! Make a list of all the terms you’ve created or adapted so that you can track their meanings and uses (and keep them consistent) throughout the manuscript. Avoid introducing too many foreign words at one time. And if you use these foreign words as a world-building tool, I recommend using any single word more than once. Your diction should enrich the character or the texture of the world in which they live.

Still not sure about your word choice? Check out the resources below or consult a copy editor. For more practical tips on how to evaluate your word choice, improve your precision and accuracy, and enhance the tone of your manuscript, check out the resources below.

Writing Excuses Podcast: Words as Words with Linda Addison