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Why Word Choice Matters


by Tom Ashford

A member of the SPF community sent me an interesting article the other day. It told of a recent experiment in which 3.5 million books (fiction and non-fiction) published between 1900 and 2008 were fed into a machine (not literally, I hope) in order to find out which adjectives writers most often used to describe men and women.

The results were… somewhat predictable.

Words used to describe women tended to be based around physical appearance, whereas those used to describe men focussed on behaviour. Here are some of the most common adjectives used.

Women (Positive)

Beautiful; lovely; chaste; gorgeous; fertile, beauteous; sexy; classy; exquisite; vivacious; vibrant.

Men (Positive)

Just; sound; righteous; rational; peaceable; prodigious; brave; paramount; reliable; sinless; honorable.

Women (Negative)

Battered; untreated; barren; shrewish; sheltered; heartbroken; unmarried; undernourished; underweight; uncomplaining; nagging.

Men (Negative)

Unsuitable; unreliable; lawless; inseparable; brutish; idle; unarmed; wounded; bigoted; unjust; brutal.

These are the adjectives most commonly linked to gender-specific nouns. Researchers then “analysed whether the words had a positive, negative, or neutral sentiment, and then categorised the words into semantic categories such as “behavior,” “body,” “feeling,” and “mind.”” The results show that “positive” descriptions of women refer to physical appearance twice as much as the descriptions of men, and “negative” descriptions occur five times more often.

Of course, it’s worth noting that with a publishing range of 1900 to 2008, plenty of books studied will be from times when such an obvious disparity was less of a concern.

Clearly, however, the words we choose when writing matter.

Diction (the words we choose) plays a part in defining our tone of voice and the way our writing comes across to the reader. Good word choice glues the theme(s) of the book, plus the narrative itself, together. Bad word choice can even lead to confusion (not to mention researchers in the future pointing out how predictable and misogynistic your writing is).

So what does a writer need to keep in mind when choosing which words they use?

Well, first up there’s meaning – which emotions and/or connotations the word invokes.

Then there’s specificity – whether you want something concrete, which is great for non-fiction, or something abstract, which works better in more poetic, fictional writing.

Audience matters – what do you want your audience to feel when they read that word? It may seem like a single word doesn’t matter when you’re cranking out a hundred thousand of them, but it does. You don’t want them laughing when they should be frightened.

And there’s diction itself, which can be split into four levels – formal, informal, colloquial, and slang.

You need to decide on your tone – this is beyond what you want your audience to feel, but rather your way of conveying how you feel about the topic.

And finally there’s style – your personal way of writing. Some writers create long, flowing prose. Others prefer short, punctual sentences. This will follow you from book to book.

But that’s not all there is to word choice. One trap new writers often fall prey to is using the same word over and over again (and not for dramatic effect, but rather repetition without realising it). Whilst many classic writers will insist that a thesaurus should be kept out of reach during the writing process and that the first word that comes into a writer’s head is probably the best one to use (and maybe it was for Hemingway etc., but even Shakespeare had to make words up to find the right ones), for many of us they’re a great way of expanding one’s vocabulary and preventing our stories from getting stale. By finding words which are more specific to the verb at hand, the emotional impact of your story can be improved as well.

And to go back to your audience – don’t just consider what you want them to feel when they read your word(s). Ask yourself if your word choice is actually the right one for that audience. If you’re writing a children’s book, clearly you don’t want to be using complicated prose that they can’t possibly understand, even if the word perfectly describes what you wish to convey. It won’t add wonder or fear or excitement, only confusion. Similarly – though perhaps less problematic – if you’re writing a book for adults, they’re going to expect language more suitable for adult readers. Keeping things too simple (for example, using ‘big’ when ‘colossal’ might be more impressive) may make your writing come across a little basic, even infantile (depending on the situation and story, of course).

Hopefully now the beautiful, vivacious ladies in our stories can be brave and rational too.

Tom Ashford

Tom Ashford

Tom Ashford is a professional copywriter, author of numerous dark fantasy and sci-fi novels, and the Head of Content at the Self Publishing Formula Blog. His books include the Blackwater trilogy and the Checking Out series.

He lives in London with his wife, in an apartment that doesn’t allow pets. Find out more about Tom here.