Three Simple Ways to Improve Your Word Choice

flight attendantEvery word matters.

This truth was clearer than ever last week, when I was terrified on a flight to Houston.

You see, I’m no frequent flyer. On the spectrum of regular business travelers to fearful hermits, I’m somewhere in the crowd of white-knuckle advocates of all things road trip. The fact that I was flying for the first time in a few years was notable.

And then this happened: A young flight attendant announced in a microphone that there was a “surprise” for us passengers. That’s right, he had to tell us about a surprise.

And let me just tell you – a surprise is the absolute last thing I want mid-air.

In the space of that single word, my body instantly launched into panic mode. My hands started sweating, my head pushed stiffly into the headrest, and my breathing stopped.

The attendant went on to say that the airline was offering a great deal. Yes, we travelers all needed to know about the credit card that combines the perks of miles and savings. I don’t remember any of the details beyond that – I was busy regaining feeling in my limbs.

We make the same mistake, don’t we? Sometimes we say and write things without thinking through the effect that our words might have on others. As a result, our readers are left to make sense of our words the best they can – which can lead to misunderstandings.

So, how can we improve our words in order to reach our audience as effectively as possible?

1. Slow down.

Your timeline for every project should include time devoted to reviewing your work. Resist the temptation to work right up to your deadline without letting your work “cool.”

At the very least, give yourself 24 hours to revisit your work the next day with fresh eyes. At best, give yourself a week to perfect your work. When I revisit a piece of writing without making any further changes, this is my signal that a project is ready for submission.

2. Let someone else read or hear your words.

Having something to say is one thing, but it’s an entirely different thing to say it in a way that is received well by your audience.

Case in point: A college hopeful used words in his entrance essay that implied a negative attitude toward his high school teachers. Forget the fact that the essay was well-structured – he was putting down educators, the very people who would judge his essay!

Luckily for him, he sought another set of eyes before submitting his final draft. Just a few changes in his choice of words shifted the tone of the essay from arrogance to confidence. (He got accepted.)

3. Be receptive.

Letting others review your work is useless unless you’re willing to consider their feedback.

Recently, an executive practiced a speech with me before a work function. Although I advised that he replace a questionable joke, he decided to keep it for laughs. Unfortunately, the joke didn’t sit well with an employee, who later complained. He resolved the issue well, but the incident could’ve been avoided if he had heeded another’s gut instincts.

Taking these simple steps can go a long way toward determining the best choice of words and avoiding negative “surprises” for your audience. What resources or tips do you apply to your own writing to improve word choice?

Ella Hearrean of Stellar Communications is a Houston-based freelance editor and writer for business leaders, publishers, and other writers. Connect with her on LinkedIn at http://www.linkedin.com/in/ellaritchie.

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