Power Words

It has been two and a half years since I wrote my Not Mere Words post where I explored nuances of meaning in word choice. Since that time, a number of readers have questioned whether word choice can really mean that big of a difference. When it comes to technical documentation, nuance is incredibly important. In fact, the reason you see so much jargon in technical documentation is to ensure clarity of meaning. Yes, you must learn what the jargon means, but the jargon usually has just one meaning, which means the use of that term is clearer than using other words to convey the same thought.

However, words also have a certain power of their own. What you say and when you say it have social implications that extend to books and to the pieces you write. Masters of fiction writing use specific terms to convey a character’s feelings, outlook on life, or point of origin. Technical writers often use specific terms to add emotional impact to what would otherwise be a relatively dry form of writing. So, it was with great interest that I recently read 19 Words That Will Make People Like You More. The article simply affirmed what I already knew—that saying things like “You’re welcome!” rather than an alternative (such as “No problem”) have significant meaning to those that hear them.

The words you choose both in personal conversation and in writing reflect who you are as a person. A discerning person can tell a lot about you just by the words you choose and how you use them. More importantly, the terms you use can affect you as a person. Saying “I can”, even when you’re certain that it’s more accurate to say “I can’t”, could actually change the situation from one of failure to one of success. Another interesting article on word choice is 10 Words That Can Make You More Powerful.

As always, the reason you use specific words is to affect those around you. Knowing that you can perform a task isn’t the problem, getting someone else to realize it is. Likewise, generating interest in a topic that is dear to you (and nearly unknown to everyone else) requires careful use of terms. Body language doesn’t translate through to writing, so word choice becomes your only tool for changing the opinion of others so that they see your point-of-view.

All this leads to the same conclusion that I made in my Not Mere Words post. In order to be successful in helping others see your perspective in person and in writing, you need to have a wide variety of words at your fingertips and understand the nuance of those words. It’s not just shades of meaning, but also how those words affect those who hear them. Power words are actually just ordinary words used in a specific manner. Let me know your thoughts about word selection at [email protected].


Why Did You Choose that Word?

Readers sometimes question my word choice in a book, which makes me think about how I’d reword the text to make it more understandable. There is a perception that one word will work just as well as another in writing, but that’s not the case. A smart author knows that word choice is incredibly important.  In fact, choosing the right word is something that an author spends a considerable amount of time doing and the reason I encourage authors to build their word power by subscribing to sites such as Word of the Day and A.Word.A.Day. So, just why is word choice so important?


  • Each word has a subtle difference of meaning so that equivalent words in a thesaurus aren’t precisely the same.
  • Words with similar meanings have different connotations—or secondary meanings assigned by society to the word.
  • A word carries with it an emotional meaning. Even when words mean about the same thing, the emotions evoked by the words will differ.
  • Some words will appeal more to the reader that others will. No matter how precisely a word fits, it doesn’t matter if the reader has no idea of what you’re trying to say.

There are a number of other reasons that word choice is important, depending on what you intend to write. For example, the number of syllables and the sound of the word are important to poets. Technical writers will often choose a word because it’s the jargon used by the community as a whole. However, the reasons listed here apply to everyone. Believe it or not, even technical writers need to elicit an emotional response or suffer the dubious honor of putting a maximum number of readers to sleep.

Long before a reader ever asks me why I chose a particular word, the editors ask the same question. It’s a good question. Sometimes I use a word because it feels familiar and looks right in a particular location—neither reason is a good one for choosing a word. If I can’t answer the question, then another word might be a better choice. Obtaining the required result from the text means choosing words that fit the situation and the reader’s needs.

There are situations where a number of words will fulfill the need. In this case, the author is free to choose the word that sounds best. This is a situation where the author’s voice comes through to the reader. The reader begins to relate to the author at a personal level through the word choices the author makes. In many situations, word choice reflects regional biases, so the word that feels comfortable also reflects the author’s environment.

Editors can help authors get out of ruts by suggesting alternative words. For example, an author may use the same word so often that it begins to lose its special meaning and choosing one of the useful alternatives will actually result in more varied and interesting material for the reader. Unfortunately, what the editor and the author feel is a great word choice may end up confusing the reader and that’s when I often get e-mail from you.

The next time you’re tasked with writing something, consider why you choose the words that you do. Think about the needs of the reader and what you’re trying to accomplish with the text you’re writing. Let me know your thoughts about word choice at [email protected].


Not Mere Words

A number of readers and editors have asked me about the pains I take in choosing words for my books and articles. Let’s say that it was a revelation that has prompted me to work so hard to create the right word combinations. It came to me one day while I was looking at samples in a paint store. I was looking at paint chips for just the right sort of white. The store must have had twenty or more versions of white—everything from antique white to Arizona white. The winter white intrigued me because it almost looked a bit blue in the store’s light. The idea is that each name is supposed to express the nuance of colorto create a picture in the viewer’s mind.

Many people see words as text. However, text is an abstraction of a wordthe presentation of that word on paper or on screen. Words are expressions of ideas. A word creates a picture of an idea or object in the viewer’s or hearer’s mind. Using the right word transfers an idea precisely from your mind to the mind of someone you want to share an idea with. Consequently, like the paint samples in the store, the nuance of words you choose is important if you want to maintain the clarity of the idea. Winter white isn’t the same as antique white, much as submitting to someone’s authority isn’t the same as acquiescing to someone’s authority. You’ll find both words on the same page in a thesaurus, but they’re different. There is a nuance of difference in the meaning.

There is another important lesson you can learn from paint chips. When you place a winter white chip next to a blue chip, the blue in winter white stands out clearly. However, place the same winter white chip next to a red chip and suddenly winter white looks more white than blue. The context of the paint chip has changed. Likewise, the subtle meaning of a word changes in relation to the words around it. You must consider the context of the word in order to understand its true meaning. In fact, most dictionaries include multiple meanings for a word in order to convey this sense of context.

However, a word is an expression of an idea and not the idea itself. Both the writer and the reader must understand the word in order for the transference of an idea to take place. When the writer and reader have the same understanding of the word, the transference is clear, but it become less clear as the understanding of the two diverge. When a reader doesn’t understand a word, there isn’t any transference at all. Consequently, a well-read author could use terms that a reader doesn’t understand, with the result that reader is confused, not educated or entertained. So, better authors define unusual terms in context, to help readers understand the term and still derive the nuance of meaning the author originally intended.

Technical writing is perhaps one of the more difficult mediums when it comes to word choice. An author needs to convey ideas precisely, which means that a significant range of word choice is both warranted and necessary. However, in order to educate the broadest range of readers, the author is necessarily limited by the need to simplify the text, so as many people as possible can understand it. This dichotomy presents the author with a serious dilemma that editors can sometimes make worse by insisting only on accuracy or only on simplicity, without considering the art behind the writing. (A good editor supplies alternative terms that the author can choose from in order to retain clarity without increasing complexity.) The need to convey ideas clearly in a form the reader can understand is one of the reasons I use beta readers to help refine the content of my books. Beta readers act as a sanity check by helping the author determine which words truly are beyond the average reader’s understanding.

All this leads to a practice that I’ve had since the day of my vision in the paint store. I learn a new word each day. In fact, I use two sources: A.Word.A.Day and Dictionary.com. Both sources send a new word to my e-mail each morning and I choose the word I want to learn that day from them. I may not use all of these words in a book, but the words do expose me to new ideas that will appear at some time in my books. Words are expressions of ideasthe more you learn, the more ideas you possess. What is one of your favorite words? Have you ever found yourself unable to convey an idea because you lack the appropriate word? Let me know at [email protected].