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Writing Hassles 101: A Word About Word Choice

Kathryn Coffey, Writer

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Picture this: your professor asks you for a five-hundred-or-more-word paper. You are working on it the night before it’s due and feel like you have used the same word at least one-hundred times. You decide to look up some fancy words to spice things up. You hope that these words will not only make you seem more intelligent than normal but will also fit the word requirement.

Careful! There are a lot of things that can go wrong here. Using fancy words is fine, but this process might take time to develop and/or perfect if you don’t know what you’re doing.  

At worse, using too many obscure words can make you come off as pretentious. It may make you sound smarter than ever before, but chances are your professor would not see this as you making the argument/telling the story. It can make you look like you’re being disingenuous, a  façade as opposed to showing who you are as a writer.   

Second, the use of too many obscure words is unneeded fluff and filler. You wouldn’t want the candy when you need the vegetables. The less fancy words there are, the more clear and powerful the message will be. To put it simply, less is (usually) more.         

Third—and definitely not the least—, there’s the risk of using those large words incorrectly. It would be bad enough to use words as filler, but using words in the wrong way can be just as bad if not worse. Instead of making you look smart and clever, it can make you seem incompetent and clumsy. It may make your professor ask the question, “Does that student really understand what he’s/she’s talking about?”  

How do you fix this problem?

Well, for starters, you shouldn’t be working on a paper the day before it’s due. Trust me, that is never a good idea. As for your choice of words, if you want to sound smart or at the very least have more variety in your wording, here’s where Mr. Dictionary can come in handy. Heck, the word diction is in his name.

If you sing/sang in a choir, you may be familiar with the word ‘diction,’ but would you know what it means if I asked you the definition of that word. The definition of diction is, according to dictionary.com, “[a] style of speaking or writing as dependent upon choice of words.”

If you see a fancy word, but don’t know what it means, look up the definition. There’s nothing wrong with using an outside source for help. It wouldn’t kill you to know what you’re talking about. If anything, using Mr. Dictionary makes you look more professional.

When choosing which words to use, keep some personal style. Use Mrs. Thesaurus as well as Mr. Dictionary to search for any ideas. Mrs. Thesaurus is especially great if you want to look for synonyms to words that you use often. The goal is to not only find a word that you understand but also to find a word that is uniquely you.   

With that in mind, be careful that you don’t use jargon or slang in your papers. The words may sound natural in a casual conversation with friends, but it would come across as odd to see words such as “dude,” “totes,” or “like actually” on every other paragraph of a formal assignment. I’ve had professors who had brief chit-chats with our class about jargon. Believe me, using jargon might not help the situation.  

Like I mentioned in my previous Writing Hassles 101 article, it’s important to know your audience. Part of presenting a great paper is how well a writer uses his/her words to appeal his/her readers. Use of language is an essential part of that appeal.

If you haven’t been acquainted with Mr. Dictionary or Mrs. Thesaurus, please do so the next time you need a new word. Because hey, there’s nothing like giving a potential solution a chance to show its capability. I’m sure this nation will come to know that all too well (and this sentence does not just retain to grammar).             

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Writing Hassles 101: A Word About Word Choice