Words are the tools of our trade. Just like a carpenter, we need to make certain our tools are in good working order, which means they need to be sharply honed, well-oiled, and solid. It’s so easy to get lazy with the words we use – using hackneyed expressions, clichés, or boring, ordinary words.

Our job as writers is to surprise our readers frequently with our word choices – this is true whether we are nonfiction or fiction writers, poets, or memoirists. We need to provoke our readers by the words we use.

How do we do this? There are several ways:

Use active verbs – these are verbs that don’t need an adverb to help explain them. For example:

  • Use “Melanie evaluated her options,” instead of “Melanie tried to figure out her options.”

  • Use “Kevin investigated the students involved in the protest” instead of “Kevin closely looked into the students who showed up at the protest.”

For a great list of active verbs, follow here.

Use concrete nouns – same idea as active verbs. Use nouns that don’t need adjectives or more detail. For example,

  • Use “Savignon Blanc,” instead of “white wine.”

  • Use “negligee,” instead of “nightgown.”

  • Use “gale,” instead of “strong wind.”

For a great list of concrete nouns, follow here.

Banish clichés – those sayings that used to be fresh, but are now overused. For example,

  • Use “Keisha was quick and clever,” instead of “Keisha was sharp as a tack.”

  • Use “when there were no more alternatives,” instead of “when push comes to shove.”

  • Use “screaming red,” instead of “blood red.”

Expel hackneyed language – the tired words always used to describe something. For example,

  • Use “metallic sunset” instead of “golden sunset.”

  • Use “trees embracing the heavens,” instead of “trees reaching their arms to the sky.

  • Use “blissful smile” instead of “radiant smile.”

Obviously, it takes time and work to strengthen our language. I remember reading that our writing vocabulary is double that of our speaking vocabulary. By taking time to explore new alternatives to the words you commonly use, you can develop an even more comprehensive vocabulary.

One caveat – often we turn to our thesaurus for ideas. Be careful. Remember words have two types of meaning: connotative and denotative. The denotative is the actual definition of a word. For example, the word “automobile” means a passenger vehicle, usually with four wheels and an engine. But ask some 16 year olds, and they will tell you an automobile means freedom. That’s the connotative meaning, what the word means in different contexts. When we substitute new words for the ones we usually use, we need to be aware of both denotative and connotative definitions. If we aren’t certain about both definitions, we shouldn’t use the word.

For more advice, tips, and inspiration on writing, please visit  my blog.