Tricks of the Trade: Diction–Finding the Best Words

The next trick of the trade is one that seems obvious, but it’s one that many new writers do not consciously practice when they write and revise: diction (also called word choice).

The key to effective diction is to search consciously for the best, most specific word. However, the best word isn’t necessarily mean the longest, fanciest word. (That’s an error my freshman students often make–they sacrifice their natural prose in attempts to sound “smart” or “intellectual.”) Oftentimes, the best word is a short but specific one. Choose nouns that include adjectives, and use verbs that include adverbs. Consider the following example:

to run swiftly = to sprint

Think about what the verb sprint means: it includes both the verb run and the adverb swiftly. Instead of using the vague verb run and then adding an adverb to it for more specific meaning, just begin with a more vivid, specific verb, like sprint.

Likewise, avoid vague nouns like thing, and avoid overusing do as your main action verb. Use specific language to paint a clear picture of your precise ideas in the mind of your reader. When discussing people, avoid overusing vague words like person and one. Unless you are discussing some universal type of person (a very rare occurrence), find a more specific type of person than the word person. (Note: I will share a list of frequently overused vague words in an upcoming diction article.)

Consider this example. Notice how dull the sentence is:

One should try to use the most specific diction to best transmit thoughts to another person.

Note the two vague people-nouns, marked in red:

One should try to use the most specific diction to best transmit thoughts to another person.

Now replace those vague nouns with specific nouns. This is what we are really trying to express:

The new writer should try to use the most specific diction to best transmit thoughts to the reader.

Now, let’s make it even more vivid by using even more descriptive nouns and verbs, and by adding adjectives where they are most effective:

The novice writer should strive to use the most specific diction to best transmit pinpointed, vivid thoughts to the reader. (Now we’re cooking!)

Don’t Overuse Adjectives and Adverbs

Now, while adjectives and adverbs can be very helpful, do not overuse such descriptors in an attempt to make your writing more descriptive or vivid. At times—perhaps simply as a matter of practice—challenge yourself not to use them at all. They will, of course, sneak in from time to time, but give it your best shot. The key is not to force them.

At this point, you are probably asking, “But why avoid descriptive words? Shouldn’t I be descriptive in my writing?”

It’s a good question, to be sure. Here’s the key: Adjectives and adverbs are not the only descriptive words we can use. Nouns and verbs are also descriptive. In fact, the best nouns and verbs are self-descriptive, and they are better at describing themselves than adjectives and adverbs. In other words, these nouns and verbs have built-in adjectives (for nouns) and adverbs (for verbs). The description is in the word itself.

You’ve probably had enough of the theory, so here is an example of a weak adjective-noun construction:

Bill realized at that moment that he could not drive in for the slam dunk because of the large man standing guard under the net. (adjective-noun construction marked in red)

The diction above is weak because the writer is using an adjective (large) to add flavor and detail to a vague, non-descriptive noun (man). Instead of trying to dress up a boring noun with outside description, why not just change the noun itself? For example, consider this improvement:

Bill realized at that moment that he could not drive in for the slam dunk because of the giant standing guard under the net. (giant = large + man)

And now we have even more choices. What are other words that can mean “large man” in this sentence? Here are a few:

colossus, monster, hulk, tower, beast, tower of a man, etc.

See how that works? Use vivid nouns that contain their own descriptions. Oh, and here’s one more point: Have fun with it!

Let’s go further down this rabbit hole by applying this same way of thinking to adverb-verb constructions. Here’s an example:

Seeing the futility of driving in for a dunk, Bill deceptively stepped back and then carefully took a shot from twenty feet away. (adverb-verb constructions marked in red)

Now, how about this:

Seeing the futility of driving in for a dunk, Bill popped a fade-away from twenty feet away. (Now we’re cooking!)

Now, from here we can add any additional adjectives and adverbs if we really need them. For example, I might use an adverb to show Bill’s intentions and way of thinking:

Seeing the futility of driving in for a dunk, Bill cleverly popped a fade-away from twenty feet away. (Now we’re cooking with fire!)

The key is that I did not add an adverb to a vague verb. I took an already vivid verb and qualified it even further. Likewise, always choose a descriptive, specific noun before adding any adjectives, and make sure that those adjectives are really necessary before you add them.

Next Up:

Revising for Word Choice: A Working Method

“It looks easy enough,” you might be thinking. “But you just make diction look easy with those examples. What am I to do when I am sitting in front of my computer, trying to find the best words? What if they don’t come to me when I’m writing?”

Fret not, dear reader: the next article shares a step-by-step working method for improving diction in any piece of writing. Trust me: you’ll want to read this one!

  • Revision for Word Choice: A Working Method (I will post this article soon.)

Christopher Altman is passionate about bringing the art of effective writing to everyday Americans. In addition to writing this blog, Mr. Christopher AltmanAltman produces and hosts The Writer’s Toolbox Podcast, and he is currently developing a number of book projects that examine the role of language in popular media and everyday life. His book, Myths We Learned in Grade School English, explores how adult writers can overcome the false writing rules learned in childhood. When he is not writing or teaching, Mr. Altman enjoys grilling out and savoring the mild summers of Central New York, where he is a professor of English at Onondaga Community College (Syracuse, NY).