Good word choice can help you establish credibility and expertise. More importantly, it can help your readers understand and relate to your content.
Using the wrong word, though, can hurt your message. In a best-case scenario, the wrong word is a bit jarring to readers. The worst that can happen is that you confuse your readers and push them to go to another site for information, tips, or entertainment.
So what is good word choice, exactly? It may seem vague.
And you’re right if you think there’s an element of subjectivity to figuring out which words are the best to use in a certain context. After all, writing of almost any kind is highly personal.
At RedLine, we define good word choice as the use of words that are accurate, appropriate, and accessible. For a word to truly be “right,” in other words, it has to satisfy a few criteria.
Let’s look at what that means.
Accurate, Appropriate, and Accessible
Every word that you write should be accurate—that is, you should say what you mean to say. Put another way, the word’s dictionary meaning needs to match your intended meaning.
This may seem easy, but you’d be surprised how many times an incorrect word rears its ugly head, both on websites and in print. For example, the word enumerable appears in Sarah Lohman’s book Eight Flavors.
It’s an English word, and it’s spelled correctly. So what’s the problem? Well, it means the opposite of what the author was trying to say (innumerable).
The first means “able to be counted,” or “can be enumerated.” The second one, which you’re probably more familiar with, means “unable to be counted” or “too numerous to count.”
When I talk about whether a word is appropriate, I use words such as context and register.
As I mean it here, context includes the publication, the industry or field, and even the format (think of an ad versus a white paper).
The words you use should fit the context. If they don’t, they can be jarring for readers.
In an otherwise beautifully written article on leaves in the October 2012 issue of National Geographic, the following sentence appears:
In fossil dinosaur poop one finds evidence of ancient leaves.
Given the context—a science and culture magazine for adults—you’d expect to see a higher-register term (feces or excrement, for example) instead.
(Of course, poop is a fine word in certain contexts—my young sons certainly say it every chance they get—but when it’s used in the wrong context it momentarily takes the reader away from the text.)
The register, or language variant according to context, is important, too. Register is, among other things, the degree of formality that you use.
A good command of register shows that you know your audience. Even among industry blogs, the level of formality varies with the firm, the sector, and the author.
Ease Is Everything
Your writing has to be accessible to your readers. In other words, your word choice should be influenced by the reading ability of your audience.
If you use nothing but big words, your readers will find your text too hard (impenetrable if you want a tougher word than hard).
On the other hand, if you “dumb down” your writing, you may lose credibility.
So what’s the happy medium? That depends entirely on your audience.
Writing an industry blog on manufacturing regulations? Then your posts will contain words that the average reader doesn’t know or use—resource extraction issuers, for example—and that’s okay. In fact, that’s as it should be.
What I’m really talking about here is using “easier” (usually shorter) words instead of “harder” words with the same meaning.
For example, in an article for The Atlantic, David Frum writes the following:
The Occupy Wall Street movement fizzled out in large part because of its ridiculously fissiparous list of demands and its failure to generate a leadership that could cull that list into anything actionable.
Now, I’m sure there are at least four people in the English-speaking world who know what the word fissiparous means, but I’m not one of them. (And I read for a living.)
So what could Frum have used instead? He meant that the movement’s demands grew more and more varied, so he might just as well have used varied. Even the word long would have conveyed his point.
Why Good Word Choice Matters
When your words are accurate, appropriate, and accessible, your message is more apt to get a response. This response could be emotional (agreement, interest, excitement) or action-oriented (clicking a link, signing up for a newsletter, making a purchase).
Marketing professionals know that register matters, which is why you see words like luxuriant and savor on the websites of high-end hotels and restaurants.
Word Choice on a Company Blog
As advice goes, “use the right words” isn’t very profound. It sounds obvious.
But it can be hard to do, especially for those who don’t write for a living but have to write as part of their job.
As I mentioned above, good word choice means using correct, fitting, and “easy” words.
Don’t be afraid to use industry jargon on your company blog—purposely avoiding it wouldn’t be genuine.
Readers of a blog that’s specific to a certain industry expect to see certain terms. Use of terminology is one way that firms show that they know what they’re talking about. In other words, they “talk the talk.” (Not as important as “walking the walk,” but still…)
For example, a blog author writing about compliance would lose his readers’ trust if he used bill where law is called for—they’re different things.
It’s not strange for a financial marketing blog to reference telcos in a post, but it would be out of place on our language blog.
Word Choice on a Personal Blog
The big difference between the text on a company blog and the text on a personal blog is that the latter is more conversational.
The writing can be—and probably should be—in a more casual register. Think “off the cuff” instead of “extemporaneous.”
Why? Because readers of a mommy blog, for example, make up what I would call a general audience—they come from all walks of life and have different education and income levels. What they have in common, of course, is that they’re all mothers.
If you’re the mom writing the blog, you need to make your text as accessible as possible. There are exceptions, but this usually means keeping your Flesch readability score above 60.0. This score means that your text could be read and understood by the average sixth or seventh grader. (The Flesch-Kincaid test assigns a grade level to a text.)
Go ahead: pick your jaw up off the floor now. But consider that, according to the Literacy Project Foundation, 50% of American adults can’t read text that’s written at an eighth-grade level. It’s too hard for them.
On a personal blog, a good rule of thumb is Write how you talk. Your text will be easy to read, which means that more people will be able to read and understand it.
If you need tips on making your text more readable, check out our piece on getting a perfect score in the Yoast Readability tab. (Even if you don’t use the Yoast SEO plugin for your blog, you’ll find the tips helpful.)
How Do You Choose the Right Words?
This is the tough part, especially for people who don’t have confidence in their writing abilities (and sometimes even for people who do). You have several options:
- Read texts similar to your own. If you’re a photographer who maintains a blog, look at the websites of other pros in your industry. How do they talk about their pictures? What words do they use to describe their craft? How do they describe their services? (A note about plagiarism: Borrowing a particular word because you like how it sounds is fine. Copying the text on a competitor’s website verbatim is not.)
- Use a thesaurus. No, seriously. You should—you’ll be amazed by the choices available to you. Don’t own one? Try an online thesaurus. But you can’t use synonyms (or near synonyms) willy-nilly. Remember to cross-reference your new discoveries in the dictionary to see if your choice of words is, in fact, correct.
- Have someone else read what you’ve written. Preferably, this person is a strong reader or writer but is not a close friend. You need objective feedback, not a pat on the back.
Good word choice matters. Choose the right words and your readers will appreciate it.
Looking for more resources? Here are a few examples of clear writing with (mostly) accessible vocabulary. Read about focusing on your audience’s needs while you write or take these 8 steps to produce better web content. Then download our free checklist to use while you edit your blog post.