Words, vocabulary, language and terminology

Should you be sending your readers to the dictionary for every sentence you write?

Two students discuss their writing while sitting on a park bench.

When I was at university, it was pointed out to me that I used the word “ensure” far too often in my essays. It had become repetitive. As an editor, I see, too, when writers get stuck on a certain word or phrase.

The conscientious writer recognises their writing’s repetitions and so reaches for the thesaurus. Here, they pull out synonyms that look good and that show just how wide the author’s vocabulary is.

And while the intention may be admirable, there are dangers when you do this!

An open dictionary showing the definition of the word dictionary.

For starters, choices need to be made very carefully! Synonyms can have subtly different meanings, or would be applied in different contexts. You may need to check a dictionary to ensure (there’s that word again!) your word fits.

Take my example of “ensure” for instance!

Thesaurus suggestions from Microsoft Word showing: safeguard, guarantee, confirm, certify and warrant

Look at that sentence: You may need to check a dictionary to ensure your word fits. Here are Microsoft Word’s choices for “ensure”. Do they all fit? Would I need to reword my sentence to make them fit? It’s not as easy as clicking! You need to carefully consider a word choice before simply substituting it.

Are you happy with: “You may need to check a dictionary to warrant your word fits”?

Another danger comes when you give your readers a text full of your very best vocabulary.

A reader examines a text closely.

“Petrichor” is a brilliant word. It perfectly describes something that we are all familiar with. Do you know what it means? Honestly? Did you have to look it up?

Now imagine being the reader who has to look up a word on every page.

  • It will break the reader’s flow, dragging them out of the story as they reach for their dictionary.
  • If they don’t look up a word, a reader may get a detail wrong, missing the very point you were trying to make.
  • It will damage their self-esteem: Am I not clever enough to read this book? It’s all very well encouraging some vocabulary, but too much will leave the reader feeling overwhelmed.
  • It may cause the reader to stop reading your book or, worse, future books by you.
  • What impression will it make on your reader? What review will you get?

I read Stephen Fry’s series of autobiographies. And I’d like to think that I have a fairly wide vocabulary. But he tested me! And it took me a few false starts before I was able to get into them.

A reader in bed holds a book over their face.

Of course, as with any writing advice, it’s all down to context and balance. You might be writing an historical novel and it would be good to drop in a few, relevant references from the time. But should you write it old English (or should that be olde English?)? Of course not!

But, if your main character is a skiagrapher, then maybe you’ll be teaching your readers something?

The words you use need to be chosen wisely, leading your reader to the right meaning. As a writer, you need to carefully consider each and every word choice, not only to avoid repetition but to ensure that your writing is as accessible, clear and engaging as possible.

If you’d like me to look over your word choices, click the buttons below to find out more about my editorial services.

petrichor, n. A pleasant, distinctive smell frequently accompanying the first rain after a long period of warm, dry weather in certain regions. Also: an oily liquid mixture of organic compounds which collects in the ground and is believed to be responsible for this smell.

“petrichor, n.”. OED Online. March 2021. Oxford University Press. https://www.oed.com/view/Entry/141889?redirectedFrom=petrichor (accessed May 15, 2021).

skiagrapher, n. 1. A person skilled at making sundials and in the art of dialling; 2. Art. An artist skilled at using shading to convey perspective.; 3. Medicine. A person skilled in the use of X-rays.

“skiagrapher, n.”. OED Online. March 2021. Oxford University Press. https://www.oed.com/view/Entry/172657?redirectedFrom=skiagrapher (accessed May 15, 2021).

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