Mark Twain once famously said: “The difference between the almost right word and the right word is really a large matter -- ’tis the difference between the lightning-bug and the lightning.”
At first, you might be inclined to think, as I did, that Twain was talking simply about the importance of choosing just the right synonym -- for example, that you shouldn't use the word "fatigued" when you want to say "exhausted." But I've recently had cause to attribute a whole different meaning to the quote...
The revelation hit me after receiving an email from a friend. My friend is very smart and an expert in managing relationships in the workplace. But she's struggled with her writing. Some months ago, I suggested she could beef up her articles by including more stories or anecdotes in them.
If you're a regular reader of mine, you may recall my frequent exhortations to use more stories or anecdotes in your writing. And while I explained the importance of this idea to my friend -- gently, but I thought clearly and unambiguously -- she just didn't "get it."
Then, no thanks to me, she had an epiphany recently. She was trying to write an article, and fretting because it seemed so dull and wordy. Suddenly the words "illustrate" and "examples" popped into her head. "This article is too boring," she thought. "But I can make it more interesting by giving some examples."
Just what I said all along, right? Well, ummm, no.... What I said was, "use more stories or anecdotes." And what she needed to hear was, "use more examples or illustrations." Synonyms? Maybe. But not for her.
When we're writing -- particularly persuasive or explanatory writing -- we need to remember that not everyone thinks the way we do. Different words resonate with different people. I've now come to think of words as similar to sound waves. (Not the speaking of them, just the words themselves.) And some people hear better at different frequencies. Our job as writers is to explain in a variety frequencies, so everyone gets the message.
As smart guy Mark Twain undoubtedly knew, the right word is not just the perfect synonym. It's also the word that your reader needs to hear -- the exact word that will help him or her understand what you're trying to say.
This week as you're writing, ask yourself: Have I explained the same concept using a variety of words?