At times, choosing the right word can look like a daunting task. Especially if we consider the sheer amount of words that even a measly dictionary can provide us with.
Yet there’s a way we can improve our ability to write in a more effective and engaging manner. And it’s not based on rules or long lists. Rather, it’s based on the natural curiosity for the basic principles of writing that any self-respecting writer generally possesses.
Choosing the right word is a matter of economy
First of all, we should look at novels like extended and coherent chunks of the language we use every day. The language we use every day without pausing to think much about it–unless we’re linguists or novelists, that is.
For example, considering their frequency, in English the first 100 words roughly represent half of all that is written. Yet, in general, we don’t notice this. And we don’t because those words are used in such a way as to facilitate comprehension rather than impede it. As a result they are sort of transparent.
Take a look at the following three examples:
1 – It was raining hard. I was looking at the tree in the garden. It swayed so much in the wind it seemed it might fall any moment.
2 – It it it it was raining hard. I was looking at the tree in the garden. Swayed so much in the wind seemed might fall any moment.
3 – It was celestial music I heard. Or rather I thought it was celestial. But to the others it wasn’t at all so celestial. For, you know, celestial is a state of the mind.
As you can see in example 1, when used properly, the pronoun it works behind the scenes. It makes our writing flow. So much so we never stop to look at it with suspicion.
Instead, in example 2 it’s enough to group all the occurrences of it together to give rise to a mess. This is hardly surprising given that this goes against the basic rules of grammar.
Finally, in the third example when we change it with another word, in this case an adjective, celestial, we can immediately notice that while the sentences are all grammatically sound, celestial ends up looking all but, indeed, celestial.
This is so simply because celestial is one of those words whose frequency is extremely low compared to the usage of it.
Indeed, if you head over to the Corpus of Contemporary American English you’ll discover that while celestial appears just 2,612 times. The word it appears 5,559,775 times. To put it another way, for every occurrence of celestial you can find 2,128 occurrences of it.
So, when we read something like example 3 and grimace, from a probabilistic point of view we are unconsciously reacting to its continuous apparition An apparition that defies the statistical, though unconscious, knowledge we have stored away of that word.
This is not to discredit low frequency words, those we use only once in a blue moon.
In fact such words are as necessary as the most recurrent ones are. Undoubtedly, it’s way easier to say: Yesterday, there was a solar eclipse. Rather than, Yesterday the moon passed in front of the sun at such a distance and in such a position as to project on the surface of the earth a vast cone of shadow.
Quite simply words have to be chosen with care. Some need to be thoughtfully sprinkled all over our writings. Some others may appear just once in a whole book. And that’s perfectly fine.
In writing, as well in many other fields, economy isn’t about using little of something. It’s about using the ideal amount of it. In this case, about choosing the right word.
Strange new words
Someone might counter this argument saying that sometimes authors may decide to use a word over and over to elicit a particular reaction from their readers.
This is absolutely true. But, again, we have to bear in mind a simple psychological truth.
To be appreciated as such, novelty has to challenge the status quo only to some extent. Instead when novelty abounds and tries to revolutionize the status quo, it is generally seen as a meaningless mess. Or a flat out threat.
Indeed, have you ever tried to listen to some avantgarde music? Have you ever tried to plow through an experimental novel? Have you ever noticed how after the first few minutes or the first few pages your necessity for novelty suddenly vanishes and you find yourself lusting at the mere idea of listening to Beethoven, or of reading, let’s say, the last book by Stephen King?
It’s not that you are irremediably backward. It’s just the way our mind works. It needs time and training. A lot of time and a lot of training to get past this novelty overload. That is, unless the work you’re listening to or reading presents you with just about the right amount of challenging material. Which usually has to be quite modest.