In the English language we have an abundance of words to choose from; we have so many words with similar meanings that the language allows for lots of choices. And, as a writer, you have to realize that each word has its own special history, as well as its own connotation. Even synonyms have tinges or shades of meaning that make them just a bit different from each other. For example, here's a listing from Roget's Thesaurus:
cool, chilly, gelid, frigid, frozen, algid, brisk, crisp, fresh, keen, bleak, raw, bitter, biting, cutting, nipping, piercing, pinching, icy, glacial, frosty, freezing, wintry, boreal, arctic, Siberian, polar, icebound, snowbound, shivering, frostbitten, frost-nipped, stone cold, cold as marble, blue with cold, quick-frozen, freeze-dried.
Can you detect a difference between, say, "frozen," "brisk," "bleak," and "piercing"? What kinds of connotations does each word have? How does "a brisk winter day" differ from "a bleak winter day"?
This difference is important because writers have to choose words that go with the tone of the piece they're working on. If you're trying to portray the cold winter day in a positive light, using the word "bleak" will defeat your purpose. Also, you want to make sure the words you choose fit into the rest of your piece. If the essay is written in a conversational tone but "$5 words" are thrown in at random, the reader will feel confused. By the same token, if the writer is using elevated diction (very academic or intellectual types of words), slang may be out of place.
Let's discuss this in the context of possible assignments. Let's say you've got Bob. Let's say Bob is a plumber. Let's say there are three assignments related to Bob:
Assignment 1: Write an observation of Bob which illuminates his personality.
Assignment 2: Write an observation of Bob and his plumbing techniques.
Assignment 3: Write an evaluation of Bob's abilities as a plumber.
Each of these three prompts allows slightly different ways of dealing with your subject —that is, Bob. But consider each prompt. What sorts of things do they ask? We might start with #3, where the goal is to provide an analysis or an evaluation of Bob's effectiveness as a plumber. Within this essay you might choose to be objective or biased, and by way of that choice certain issues of language will arise: certain words will be chosen over others. Overall, the goal must be to evaluate Bob. The words you choose should match your purpose.
If we look at prompt #2, we see something different; we are asked to do an "observation of . . . his plumbing techniques," which calls for an unbiased eye. You must report Bob's actions. This report might also include language familiar to the plumbing industry, depending upon your audience. If you attempt to deal with all the issues of Bob 's technique from the standpoint of a layperson, then you could find yourself spending a great deal of time explaining terms.
Consider prompt #1. How can you convey the personality of an individual in writing? Consider specificity and exactness of scene. You should consider vividness. Think about how smells, colors, textures, etc. relate to your ability to convey a sense of an individual, person, place, or thing. Think about which details convey the significance of your subject—the important details. Think about what you see as interesting in Bob's life, what makes him unique.
Mainly, consider what different words do to the meaning of particular utterances and how particular audiences require particular wording. Finally, consider that your writing is not for any particular teacher; rather, consider the writing as being for your sake. Consider it your own. Also see our pages on semantic field and audience, as they are closely related to these issues. As a general check list, consider the following:
- Are you repeating the same word when you could use a synonym?
- Is your language appropriate to your audience?
- Is your language appropriate for your assignment?
- Are you providing adequate details?
- Are your details vivid, specific, and pertinent?
For practice, let's do an exercise in word choice. Here is a simple sentence, which you are asked to rewrite in five different ways. Don't be afraid to expand: you can certainly add stuff to the sentence. Play around; have fun!
I was happy to receive your letter yesterday.
- Make the sentence informal, as if you're talking to the letter-writer on the phone---and use slang.
- Try to sound as intellectual as possible . . . use those $5 words!
- Make the sentence sarcastic. Use words in such a way that it's possible to read the sentence as meaning exactly opposite from what it's saying.
- Make the sentence overly sincere, even mushy. Pretend you're writing to your great-aunt Hilda.
- Make the sentence read as if it were written by someone who's REEEEEALLLLLY hyper.
Notice what would and wouldn't fit into each sentence. The language of sentence #2, for example, would be out of place in sentence #1. These are the kinds of choices you have to make. Be smart about what you're doing with the language. But don't be afraid to experiment!