Thursday, March 31, 2011

The wrong word

Have you ever used the wrong word? In her book “Reading Like a Writer,” (Harper Perennial, 2006) Francine Prose made an interesting comment about word choice.

“I have heard a number of writers say that they would rather choose the slightly wrong word that made their sentence more musical than the precisely right one that made it more awkward and clumsy.”

I had a difficult time relating to that sentence because it didn’t ring true to me. Don’t get me wrong, I love the thesaurus, and use it to help explain my ideas. I enjoy scanning the list of synonyms that pop up on my screen, just waiting to be picked like the kids in gym class lined up against the wall. But if a word changes the meaning, writers have a responsibility so support that change throughout the entire piece. If they don’t, the writing can confuse readers.

I’ve found different, cooler words that I wanted to use more times than I can say. When I did use them, I needed to ensure that the change continued to reflect what I wanted to say. If I didn’t use them, I would keep them in mind for the next time I wrote something similar, so I could put it out there for everyone to see how cool I really was, (oh, if only that were true!). But I don’t think I ever changed a sentence to make the meaning fit the word.

Writing helps me clarify my thoughts. Sometimes I don’t know what I think about a topic until I write about it, which forces me to organize my ideas. When I’m writing, I’m also thinking about what I think, and how I want to say it. It’s all so intertwined that I don’t always know which comes first, the idea or the correct words to express it.

Word choice can clarify meaning, or obscure it. Changing a word because it sounds prettier can have a negative impact on the entire piece of writing, and possibly confuse the readers. Every word is meaningful, and every word counts. Choose your words carefully. And if you can’t fit that really cool word into the piece you’re working on, there’s always next time.

Talk to you soon,



  1. Hi Mary! Interesting post. I don't think I'd choose a "slightly wrong word", either. It's either right or it's wrong! I do love having a thesaurus right on my laptop for easy word searching. One thing I've had a difficult time with is when writing my memoir, sometimes I've searched for THE right word, but then it changes my voice and doesnt' sound like me, and in realizing that, I go back to either my original choice or find a word that is more "me". Thanks for this!

  2. I agree. I love the thesaurus too, but I don't think I would choose the wrong word, and was surprised that the author knew (m)any writers who did!