Last week, White House economic aide Gene Sperling engaged in what became a controversial email discussion
with veteran reporter Bob Woodward.
Sperling told Woodward he would “regret” his decision to write a column on President Obama. The journalist said it was a threat; the White House called Woodward's claim nonsense.
The big lesson for PR professionals was to choose your words cautiously.
Whether you’re pitching reporters or writing emails to colleagues, word selection is important. Crafting prose is mostly a matter of using the right words for the job.
Here are some steps to help you achieve that goal.
1. Look up the definition of an unfamiliar word to ensure you understand the meaning before you use it.
It’s easy to deploy a word you’ve just read or heard, mistakenly believing you understand its definition or its connotation, only to confuse or accidentally mislead your readers. Always double-check a term you’ve never used before. Consider doing the same with words you’ve used before and think you know.
2. Search a thesaurus or a synonym finder for the precise meaning, taking care to notice the different connotations of similar words.
Flag stock words and phrases, and thumb or click through a print or online resource to select a more exact or accurate synonym. Be alert to seemingly similar words with distinct senses.
3. Keep your writing clear and coherent, and avoid pretentious or overly formal language.
Write to communicate, not to impress. Say what you mean, and mean what you say. Don’t let your writing get in the way of your message. There’s a fine line between elegance and pomposity.
4. Select the strongest nouns and verbs before you select adjectives and adverbs.
Words that modify nouns and verbs can enhance clarity of thought and vividness of imagery, but if they upstage the words they’re supposed to support, strengthen the noun and verb. When you do so, an adjective or adverb may no longer be necessary.
5. Seek opportunities to use repetition for rhetorical effect, but watch for careless redundancy.
Don’t repeat yourself unless it’s done to emphasize your point.
6. Read your draft aloud to help you refine grammar and usage.
If something doesn’t sound right to you, it probably doesn’t read right to your audience, either. Recitation is time consuming, but that’s how you find the awkward wording or phrasing you didn’t stumble over in your silent review.
7. Ask someone else to read your writing and critique it.
People you draft to read your prose need not offer solutions to problems of grammar, usage, organization, and logic; they can simply highlight problematic words, phrases, sentences, and passages, and offer more detail if necessary while leaving the problem solving to you.
The last step isn’t practical for every writing task or assignment, but if a piece of prose is important enough to you, and you have a reliable, word-savvy person on hand, ask to borrow their expertise—and be sure to reciprocate when the time comes.
A version of this story first appeared on DailyWritingTips.com