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blog | June 3, 2015

Clear Thinking for Great Copy, Part 1: Choosing the Right Word

By David Hopkins

I’m a writer. No need to gussy it up with business jargon and call myself a “content provider.” I write. That’s what I do. Whether it’s a few words for a billboard, a few sentences for a webpage, or an incredibly dense post-apocalyptic novel, I care about the words I produce. I provide the right content at the right time for the right audience. I do it because good writing has a profound impact. Say something the right way, and your audience is suddenly, miraculously yours. Say it the wrong way, and the disdain is almost unbearable. No one wants to embarrass himself or herself when writing. As a result, many people are fearful, timid writers.

Writing is hard because our ideas don’t always line up conveniently. Our thoughts are squirrelly and rebellious. Conversely, good writing is the result of clear, patient thinking. Organize your thoughts in a meaningful way, and the writing will come. Clear thinking takes shape on four levels: in our words, our sentences, our paragraphs, and our willingness to edit.

This month, I’ll show you my approach to creating great copy in the most straightforward way possible—four weeks, four blog posts. All the best writing advice crammed into a few short essays. Let’s get started.

Choosing the right word

Commensurate! That was the word I was looking for. It was on the tip of my tongue. I was explaining to my wife the pain in my shoulder was not—something—with my inactivity. The chiropractor was blaming my sedentary ways, but the pain wasn’t… commensurate. I could have said the pain wasn’t equivalent or that it didn’t fully correspond in size or degree. It wasn’t comparable or proportionate. But darn it, I wanted the word “commensurate.” That was the word.

I get frustrated when I can’t find the right word. (Am I frustrated? Or do I get mad? Angry? Irritated? Irked? Bothered? Annoyed? What is the subtle difference between these words? These are the questions I ask on almost an hourly basis.) If you’re concerned about communicating your ideas, then you need to care about your words.

I’m reminded of why words matter from the Simpson’s episode where Homer’s intelligence reached a new low.

Homer: Marge, where’s that… metal… dealy… you use to… dig… food?
Marge: You mean a spoon?

Sure, you could call a spoon a “food digger,” but spoon is already such a perfectly good word. Or as Mark Twain once wrote, “Use the right word, not its second cousin.” The right word gives your meaning nuance, precision.

Denotation, connotation, and sound

What’s the difference between “offer” and “provide?” Our clients offer and provide a lot of things. To “offer” is more passive. It says, “here, take it or not, whatever.” To “provide” sounds like it’s meeting a need and is readily given. Plus, I like the sound of the word “provide.” The word just feels warmer. Does that mean “provide” always wins? Hardly. Sometimes the word gets overused, and I need to fall back to “offer.” It depends on the circumstance.

Should I say the options are “unlimited” or “limitless?” Do I call them “clients” or “customers?” A good writer is mindful about how words work and which ones work best.

  • Denotation is the literal or primary meaning of a word. Keep your dictionary by your side. When choosing a word, denotation is most important. Make sure the word means what you think it means. For instance, the word “occasionally” doesn’t mean “rarely.” It means at infrequent or irregular intervals. The word “invariably” doesn’t mean something that rarely happens. It’s something that is unchanging and constant, e.g., “The shopping malls invariably get more crowded in December.” When you refute, you’re not denying something, you’re proving it to be untrue. There’s a difference.
  • Connotation is an idea or feeling that a word invokes. Many words carry baggage with them. A writer should be aware of how a word can stir the reader. I’d rather be conversational than chatty. I’d rather be youthful than childish. I’d rather be economical than miserly.
  • The sound of a word can also be important. Even if it’s the right word, if it’s jumbled together with other words in an awkward manner and doesn’t sound right, you may want another word. Listen for pleasing alliterations, a gentle rhythm, and even a happy rhyme within your writing. Jack Hart, author of A Writer’s Coach, gives this obvious—but often overlooked—advice: “The best thing you can do is to start reading your work aloud.”

Buzzwords are the enemy.

Insecure writers lean on mind-numbing jargon. They hide behind verbosity, hoping it might cover the fact they have so little to say. If they write the same idea, over and over again, rearranging the buzzwords each time, maybe the reader will get lulled into submission? This is not good.

Buzzwords are always changing, drifting in and out of style. It’s useful to keep track of them like wanted fugitives. These words have abused us. It’s perfectly acceptable to execute them on sight. Ann Handley and C.C. Chapman created a list of banned buzzwords in their book Content Rules. These are the words I avoid whenever possible.

  • Instead of “impactful,” try influential or substantialPowerful is good, too.
  • Instead of “leverage” (used as a verb), try influenceexploitenhancerely on, or just plain use.
  • Instead of “learnings,” use lesson.
  • Instead of “synergy” (and its many variations: synergistic, synergism, synergize), try cooperationhelpjointpooled, or combined effort.
  • Instead of “proactive,” try activeanticipate, or forestall.
  • Instead of “drill down,” try in-depth.
  • Instead of “30,000 feet,” use overview or executive summary.
  • Instead of “incenting/incentivizing,” try encourage or provide an incentive.

When you can avoid the buzzwords, you begin to sound like a human being again and not a corporate tool.

Get rid of useless words.

William Zinsser wrote in his book On Writing Well, “Clutter is the disease of American writing. We are a society strangling in unnecessary words, circular constructions, pompous frills and meaningless jargon.” This concept should stick with you: clutter is a disease. If you want to be a good writer, consider yourself a surgeon. Your scalpel is the backspace key. Carefully highlight and delete anything mucking up the intention within every sentence and every paragraph.

What does clutter look like? It’s most primal state is wordiness. When a “meeting” transforms into a “sit-down to discuss the operational imperative of our company,” you have a problem.

Other examples from On Writing Well:

  • “At this point in time” simply could be “now.”
  • “With the possible exception of” is a cluttered version of “except.”
  • “Due to the fact that” should have gone with “because.”
  • “Until such time as” is better off as “until.”
  • “For the purpose of?” Go with “for.”
  • Wordiness is a crime against common sense.

Are you crying?

I was watching TV, and a car commercial came on. It was for the Chevy Malibu. Instead of focusing on the car, the commercial opens on the scene of a woman and her daughter getting ready for the day. Then it moves to a dad playfully picking up his kid under his arm, hauling him and his other children to school. Next, an adult is having breakfast at a diner with his father. Then, a family goes to the beach. There’s a quick shot of a couple on a date, and then a father holding his newborn child. Finally, the car parked outside the house at night. Soft piano music plays throughout.

The commercial: “We’re not supermodels. We’re trying our best to be role models. We don’t jump at the sound of the opening bell because we’re trying to make the school bell. Corner booth beats corner office any day. We make the most out of our time and our money. The Chevrolet Malibu, the highest ranked midsize car in initial quality… the car for the richest guys on Earth.”

My wife: David, are you crying?
Me (wiping something out of my eye): Damn. That was good.

Was it the sappy music? Was it the sentimental image of a father holding his child? Do I just really want a Chevy Malibu? Mostly, it was one word that destroyed me. “Richest.” The commercial took a simple word and put it in a new light. What does it mean to be truly rich? Forget those fancy, expensive cars. You’re a family man. You already have everything that’s most important. No one will judge you for buying a Chevy Malibu. At least, it’s not a mini-van. (That may not have been the message they were going for.)

The right word at the right time can be powerful, like a Chevy Malibu… or something else that’s powerful. I can’t quite think of good example right now.

It’ll come to me.

Next week: Crafting the Right Sentence.