Are you writing the wrong words?

Are you writing the wrong words?

My 10-year-old daughter loves telling stories, and she really liked embellish them with emotionally laden words that packed a punch.

For example, her teacher didn’t speak firmly or shout – she’d “scream”. A kid at school didn’t push another – he’d “viciously smash” into him. The bus driver didn’t call out – he “roared”. A scrape didn’t hurt – it “burned like a thousand knives of liquid fire”. A bug wasn’t just a bug. It was “terrifying”.

You’d think I’d be proud of the way she amplified the emotional effects of her storytelling. You’d think I’d be smug that my daughter had a near-instinctive ability to choose words that conjured up vivid mental imagery.

But I wasn’t.

I had a problem with that kind of language.

Words have power – more than you might realize. They can influence your behavior or your emotional state. Certain words can create a positive, healthy, glass-half-full mindset… or they can become the fodder of crippling limiting beliefs and debilitating fears.

Here’s a favorite quote of mine that sums it up nicely:

“Trying to do something just sounds like you’re not really making that much effort – and the result is almost inevitable… so I swap the word ‘try’ for a better version: endeavour.” – Bear Grylls

When my daughter talked about her screaming teacher, her roaring bus driver or the bugs, she was giving words too much power without realizing it. My daughter isn’t actually scared of bugs, or any of the school staff; she just likes to embellish dramatic impact. So if something buzzes past her head, calling it a terrifying bug that nearly attacked her is far more fun than describing it as some small little creature that sort of just happened to bumble by on the breeze.

Here’s where I began to worry: what we think, we eventually come to believe.

I noticed that my daughter started using the word terrifying in everyday language. It was becoming a “habit” word, her go-to adjective of choice. A barking dog that startled her was terrifying. A kid chasing her at school for a game of tag was terrifying. A loud noise on the bus was terrifying.

If my daughter kept this up, she’d unconsciously train her brain to believe that benign situations actually were terrifying. Those innocent bugs would become truly frightening monstrosities, and we’d eventually end up in a therapist’s office to get help with the self-created phobia.

Don’t believe this can happen? Here’s a good example of how the words we use influence our beliefs: Imagine you’re giving your first on-stage presentation. You’ve never done this before. It’s all happening tomorrow morning – you’re scheduled to go on first, at 9am. Would you spend the day telling yourself you’re excited or nervous?

You could go either way. The butterflies, your beating heart, that little squeeze in your stomach each time you think about the presentation… Could be nerves. Could be excitement. Both share the same physical symptoms. It’s the word you choose to describe the feeling that creates the belief.

If you think they’re nerves, you’ll start to fear the presentation. If you think it’s excitement, you’ll feel anticipation for your big moment. This means that the word you choose makes all the difference in whether you have a positive or negative experience.

Your words influence perception – in more ways than one.

I didn’t want my daughter creating fears for herself. (After all, we live in a forest. Bugs are inevitable.) I wanted her to be consciously aware of the power of words so that she could choose them more carefully. (I also wanted to be able to distinguish when she was truly terrified without having to guess. “Well, on a scale of 1 to 10, how terrified are you right now?)

So I banned the word “terrifying” from our household. I challenged my daughter to think about better alternatives… and what happened next surprised me.

Like you’d expect, my daughter’s vocabulary expanded rapidly to compensate for the loss. She’d pause mid-sentence and rifle through her mental thesaurus to find the best word for what she wanted to describe. Her bugs weren’t terrifying anymore: They became surprising, startling, unpleasant, or interesting. Her teacher didn’t scream anymore: She spoke strictly, firmly, or securely.

But that’s not what surprised me.

What surprised me most was that as my daughter became selective about choosing more appropriate words, I found myself engaging more with her stories. I listened more. I enjoyed them more. The nature of the stories hadn’t changed – but they weren’t dramatic, over-the-top tales anymore. They were… more mellow. More thought out. More realistic.

More believable.

How credible are the words you choose?

Most writers don’t think about every word they choose. Most writers don’t even think about any of the words they chose. It’s easy to rely on current vocabulary, so they use their go-to favorites or fall back on longtime word-choice habits. There isn’t any conscious decision involved in selecting the words they add to their content.

They just pour them all out, period.

A few writers use a thesaurus. Not many, but some do. They try to expand their vocabulary or want to spice things up. But they don’t put much actual thought into the words they select; they’re looking for alternatives, not accuracy. “Oh, that’s a neat word; I’ll use that.”

Swapping one word for another isn’t the same as curating the best word for the moment.

Start asking yourself whether you’re using the right words for what you want to say. Use that thesaurus, and ask which word is best for right now. Get selective, and be smart. Find realistic, accurate words. Research the true meanings of the words you do use – you just might discover that there’s a better word than the one you originally chose.

In fact, it’s often better when it isn’t. Believable content means credible content – and that’s what you want to create.

Post by James Chartrand

James Chartrand is an expert copywriter and the owner of Men with Pens and Damn Fine Words, the game-changing writing course for business owners. She loves the color blue, her kids, Nike sneakers and ice skating.

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  1. Haha – sometimes, adverbs do help, eh? 😉

    I am proud – and in awe – of your daughter’s ability to use imagery-rich words. But, yes, over-the-top language can get stale quickly!

    I have stopped using the words: ‘amazing and awesome’ in my writing. Two beautiful words that have become (banal) clichés 😉

    Thanks James

    • Yeah, I agree – amazing and awesome are overused for sure. My personal pet peeve is ‘epic’. Seems like everything is epic these days (even when it’s not even close to being epic to begin with), and I’m curious about what word will come to mean more epic than epic!

  2. Great story! You are helping your daughter fall in love with words by encouraging her to stretch. Maybe she’ll follow in your footsteps.

    Incidentally, I use to explore words I suspect I could be using more appropriately or to discover nuances. The site has a rich blog, too, with many different contributing writers and lovers of language. Reading a lot helps my writing, too.

    Thanks for a pine blog post, James!

    • And what can you do about typos in comments? Ahh, well.

    • Have to admit I’m pretty proud of my daughter’s reading, writing and comprehension skills. She knocks it out of the park, and at 10 is already composing short stories in Word. (Now if I can just teach her to type with two hands and all ten fingers…)

      That’s a cool little tool, too – thanks for mentioning that! I know a lot of people like the visual imagery of mind maps, and it’s an interesting way of presenting different word choices.

  3. The word amazing. I can’t stand to see writers using it. Let’s go back and review what amazing really means. Is your child’s art work really amazing? Does that shirt really look amazing on you? Probably not.

  4. This is really educating,
    You have such an intelligent and smart daughter. Most adults will certainly not be able to reason like she does.

    I agree with every word you mentioned here. Sometimes, we usually create obstacle for ourselves by our choice of words and thoughts even without knowing it, this is why we should always be mindful of what we say or think.

    And yes Krithika, I’ve also been using Awesome and Amazing a lot these days, guess I should find a better alternative.

    Thanks for sharing

    • Here’s something you can really have fun with: Spend a day listening to the words people choose to use when speaking everyday language. You’d be surprised at how laden their conversation is with all sorts of limiting beliefs!

      My favorite: “Yeah, had to do it. Didn’t have a choice!” Oh? That’s strange. There’s *always* a choice to be had!

  5. Matt Thompson says:

    Lovely story, and thought-provoking. You’ve got a tangle of points here. Choose the accurate word. Don’t wear out words through over-use. And remember that words mediate emotion. Worthy reminders.

    I’d quibble with your point about writers not caring about what words they deploy. I thought we were all pettyfogging word nazis, anxious not only to get the word right but to make it colourful and engaging for the reader, too.

    Not that I’m into floccinaucinihilipilification, but that just reveals another pet hate of mine: unsubstantiated claims. I’m as guilty as anyone, or at least that’s my story.

    • Well, I had to go look up the meaning of pettyfogging and floccinaucinihilipilification, having never heard either in my life (and I can’t even pronounce one of them!)… as the saying goes, I’ll go to sleep less stupid tonight!

      As for the quibbling point, you might’ve won the previous battle, but I’ve got this one: I did say most writers don’t care about their choice of words, not all! 😉

      • Matt Thompson says:

        Thesaurus? Brontesaurus! No-one with an internet connection has one.

        Oh, and of course I was only kidding with my highfalutin godwottery. Give me plain English any day. Unless of course marketing, propaganda, persuasion and literary quality come into it, and even then the plain word beats the snazzy alternative. Unless you’re shooting for snazzy, in which case it doesn’t.

        And after that you’ll go to sleep more stupid.

  6. My sentiments exactly, I often ask my kids how many other animals on this planet use words to communicate. They know and understand that words have significance, shaping how we perceive the world, others and ourselves. Great post!

  7. Great point about believable content being credible content. As readers, our eyes will usually slide right over hyperbole and assume it’s not true. (ha, I think I read that somewhere online, so it must be true!) : )

    My thesaurus, both the online version and the old-school print version I use, are well-worn; I don’t know how I’d survive without them. Reminds me of that Mark Twain quote I love so much: “The difference between the almost right word & the right word is really a large matter–it’s the difference between the lightning bug and the lightning.”

    Thanks for a wonderful article!

    • I’ll admit I don’t actually own a thesaurus… but I do check out possible word options now and then.

      Mark Twain is dead right on that, and you can almost feel it when you don’t have the right word, eh? ‘Hmmm, something like vivacious but not quite…’

  8. This article makes my heart sing. The English language is so varied and nuanced that the possibility to articulate one’s thoughts clearly and concisely is virtually limitless. Finding smart, accurate words to express one’s thoughts may take a little longer, but in the end I believe they make one’s work stand out from the pack.

    • I absolutely agree. Anyone can learn how to write a basic article using basic words (like, really basic), but that comes off incredibly generic, don’t you find?

      Being able to choose appropriate words and tuck them in at the right times and moment really bring a new dimension to quality and voice – and I love that sort of thing.

  9. Loved this article!

    I’m one of those people who spends a lot of time with a thesaurus when I write, trying to pick out the perfect word to create the feeling I want. But your comment above about everyday language made me finally realize something.

    I say all kinds of words out loud that have created limiting beliefs and I didn’t even know it… being “terrified” of public speaking is one of them, “pathetic” at selling is another, and too much of a “socialmediaphobic” to comment on blog posts is the one I’m deleting from my vocabulary right this second :).

    I’ll have to start paying attention to my own everyday language as much as I pay attention to the words I use in my writing. Thanks for the great post!

    • YES! I’m SO glad you picked up on that!!! That was the crux of the point of the post (subtle, I know): that whether we’re writing it or speaking it, our language choice has HUGE implications for us and others, and far-reaching effects on the world.

      We don’t really mean what we say – I’m sure you’re not actually terrified of public speaking in the true form of the word, and you probably just dislike it because it makes you nervous for whatever reason… but just that little word switch brings new light to the situation. “Yeah, it won’t kill me, and I can fix that reason so I’m not nervous… hey, it’s not that bad after all!”

      Ah, but I’m rambling. 🙂 You get it. Good for you.

  10. Ahhh, the things we can learn from a 10-year-old mind. Only yesterday I helped my 10-year-old daughter edit a speech. I was amazed at how quickly she noticed duplication of information and flow issues. She was rearranging paragraphs and hitting delete like a seasoned pro. Kids don’t have the same hangups and haven’t formed habits….yet. As adults, we become so habituated in the way we do things – including word choices. I personally love using my thesaurus. I’m going to look up that visual one mentioned above. I love a new tool. Great post, thanks James. I’m going to embark on a new life that’s absent the word ‘amazing’. We should all put our 10-year-old, wide-eyed, open-to-new-ideas hat on more often’. Mine’s on now.

    • That’s the brilliant part, eh? Kids definitely don’t have the same levels of feeling self-conscious or worrying about ‘perfect’, and it’s great to watch them in action. As parents, we’re always telling them to just go for it and try and have fun, after all, and yet, we don’t take our own advice very often.

      I’m glad you ‘got’ that point – enjoy the effects of shedding adult hangups! 🙂

  11. This post spoke to me.

    As a child from parents where English is a second language, I didn’t have the luxury that your daughter has. She has a parent who helps build her vocabulary and encourage her to use words carefully.

    My father would read books and the dictionary often to build his own vocabulary. It’s too bad that he didn’t practice using those new words onto his children. Especially me considering that I don’t feel I am articulate enough or quite confident in giving speeches or talking in meetings at work.

    Now as an adult I wish I had built my own vocabulary as a child. But the past is the past and now I am building my own repertoire of words by reading and listening to how other people speak.

    My question to you is how do you select words so that you don’t come off “snooty”? For example using the word “peruse” versus “look” . I love the word peruse. I love how it sounds. But some people think it is a snooty word. Or maybe I just need to new friends, LOL!

    Well I do know that I write better than I speak. This article caused me to think more carefully on what words I use when I write and speak.

    Thank you for this post!

  12. Thank you for reminding me about the importance of word choice.

    It can be easier using superlatives to induce emotion and it’s something I’ve been guilty of when writing certain types of content. The cost is that it encourages lazy writing and lazy thought- time to start making a conscious choice about words instead of just letting them runaway from me.

  13. Great topic you have shared with us! Blogging is something that has the potential for success in nearly any industry. However, this slim potential doesn’t translate into big bucks or Internet success for everyone. Dreaming of a career as a famous blogger won’t translate into real success if we aren’t equipped for the job.

  14. Hi James. Reading your post left me with double impression. On the one hand it is really fun to hear how your child amplifies the emotional effects on her storytelling, but you should think that it can get into habits. I keep thinking that parents should monitor the child’s language since childhood. But it is just my opinion.


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