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The Science of Word Choice

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The Brain

Your Brain. Gorgeous, right?


I promise this is not another boring science lesson. This one will be fun. It’s about writing! Fun, right?

Many amateur writers (yes, me included) think they need to pack their intensive high school and college vocabulary into their book in order to show that they can, indeed, write. But that’s not writing. That’s showing off.

When you’re writing, you need to make conscientious word choices for two reasons:

  1. You need to use the word with the most impact. This has to do with eliminating unnecessary qualifiers, but also with creating a picture. Instead of “walks like a fat lady” you might choose the word “waddled.” It paints a vivid picture without blatantly telling your readers anything. Likewise, you may choose to use “sprint” instead of “ran quickly.” Using adverbs are typically a sign that you can pick a stronger, more effective verb. So do it!
  2. You need to use the word that won’t distract your reader. Distracting your reader pulls them out of your story. No one wants to read your book with a thesaurus in hand unless they’re reading the book for school and it’s for a grade. When you use big and unusual words, it takes longer for someone to read it. It’s a distraction when they have to stop and think about what word it was they just read.

Wait, what? Words can distract a reader?

Yes, they can, and that’s where the science comes in. Here are three things you need to know about word recognition that can help you start choosing the smart word and not the Brobdingnagian word:

  1. More frequently used words are easier to recognize. This means that people will read common words quicker than uncommon words. They don’t have to stop and think about what word it is or how to pronounce it or what it even means.
  2. Words recently seen are easier to recognize. This is called repetition priming. This is why the dialogue tags “said” and “asked” seem to fade into the background when reading. When you start using a very wide variety of dialogue tags, it becomes distracting because your reader has to take time to recognize each one separately.
  3. Words in general are better recognized compared to a string of letters, known as the word-superiority effect. This primarily has to do with words that are super irrelevant, like sesquipedalianism. For people who don’t know what this word means, they aren’t going to see it as a word but a string of letters to sound out. It slows down your reader and takes them out of the story. Don’t do that! You should use 10 small words to describe what you mean over 1 big word only 1/100,000 of your readers will know without checking a dictionary.

So, the science of word choice means that you need to pick the best, common word available to you. That is what it means to be a good writer (I think. Don’t check me on this).


Written by Jessica Lei

October 14, 2010 at 6:00 am

Posted in Word Choice, Writing