Category Archives: word choice

Should you name with different words?

Suppose you are writing about Mae babysitting.  Should you write:

Mae looked at the little boy.  This experienced babysitter wondered when she should put the child to bed.  The tired girl wanted to bathe the child now, read him a book, and turn out his light in a half hour.  But should the young woman do that?

Or should you write

Mae looked at the little boy.  She wondered when she should put the child to bed.  She wanted to bathe the child now, read him a book, and turn out his light in a half hour.  But should she do that?

Writing experts say to write the second way.  Why?

Normally, when we speak, at the second mention of a person, we substitute a pronoun for the person’s name.  If we use another way to describe or name the person, the reader thinks we are talking about a new person.  That is because we are so used to hearing a pronoun used as a second reference.

What does the first example add that the second doesn’t?  “Experienced babysitter,” “tired girl,” and “young woman.”  Do those descriptors add anything important to the meaning of the paragraph, namely, whether Mae should put the little boy to bed?  Not really.  Do they distract the reader from the real meaning of the paragraph?  Yes.

At second reference, use a pronoun.  At third reference, use a pronoun.  If other people are involved, especially another person of the same gender, use the persons’ names to avoid confusion.  Occasionally repeat the original person’s name to remind the reader who you are writing about, but most of the time, use pronouns for subsequent references.  If you must use a noun, use the most generic noun–girl, woman–at second or third reference.

Sometimes the simplest, least “clever” way is the best.

Finding the right word

When you are reading a rough draft, and you come to a word which seems not quite right to you, or you know there must be a better word but you don’t know what it is, what should you do?

Draw a box around any word which offers an opportunity for improvement and keep reading, says John McPhee, author of Draft No. 4: On the Writing Process.  Later, go back, and one by one, think about each of those words.  He suggests you use a good dictionary, the kind which will not only offer synonyms but which will explain shades of meaning among those synonyms.

McPhee recommends not heading directly to a thesaurus because generally thesauruses list synonyms but do not identify shades of meaning, and it is that nuance that you are probably looking for.  However, he says that if you like using a thesaurus, do that, but then look up your chosen word or phrase in a dictionary too.  He calls thesauruses “rest stops” on the way to the dictionary.

McPhee also warns against choosing a multisyllabic word when a simple word will do.

McPhee is author of close to three dozen nonfiction books and is a former writer for Time and The New Yorker.  He offers advice in Draft No. 4 based on his experience writing for more than 50 years, including how to interview in a way which makes people open up, and how to structure nonfiction so that the structure helps the writer but is invisible to the reader.