Word Choice in Writing Study Guide

Updated on Aug 25, 2011

Practice exercises for this study guide can be found at:

Word Choice in Writing Practice Exercises


This lesson focuses on diction, the words writers choose to express meaning. A small change in word choice can have a big impact. You'll learn how to watch for word choice clues that reveal meaning.

What made Sherlock Holmes such a good detective? Was he just that much smarter than everyone else? Did he have some sort of magical powers? Could he somehow see into the future or into the past? No. Sherlock Holmes was no fortune-teller or magician. So what was his secret? His powers of observation.

One of the things active readers do is look for clues. So far you've learned, among other things, to look for clues for determining the main idea, the structure, and the point of view. Now we're going to focus on the clues writers offer through diction: the specific words writers choose to describe people, places, and things. A writer's word choice can reveal an awful lot about how the writer feels about his or her subject.

Making Observations and Drawing Conclusions

Writers make a lot of decisions. They decide what to say and how to say it. They choose whether to clearly state their ideas or suggest them. If they only suggest them, then they need to decide what clues to leave for their readers, and who must find and interpret those clues.

By looking closely, you can see the writer's clues that will help you understand the text. Word choice clues can come in the following forms:

  • particular words and phrases that the author uses
  • the way those words and phrases are arranged in sentences
  • word or sentence patterns that are repeated
  • important details about people, places, and things

Detective work is a two-part process. First, a detective must find the clues. But the clues alone don't solve the case. The detective must also draw conclusions based on those clues. These conclusions are also called inferences. Inferences are conclusions based on reasons, facts, or evidence.

The same sort of process takes place in reading. You need to look for clues and then draw conclusions based on those clues. What is the writer trying to say? Good conclusions come from good observations. To be a better reader, be more like Sherlock Holmes: be more observant. In The Adventures of the Blanched Soldier, Sherlock Holmes tells a client: "I see no more than you, but I have trained myself to notice what I see." To be a good reader, you just have to train yourself to notice what you see!

Observing Word Choice

Here's a quick test of your observation skills. Read the next two sentences.

A: A school uniform policy would reduce disciplinary problems.
B: A school uniform policy would minimize disciplinary problems.

It's not hard to see the difference between these sentences. In sentence A, the writer says the policy will reduce disciplinary problems; sentence B, on the other hand, uses the word minimize. No big deal, right? After all, both sentences say that the uniform policy will result in fewer disciplinary problems. But there is a difference. One sentence is much stronger than the other because one word is actually much stronger than the other. To minimize is to reduce to the smallest possible amount. Thus, while both writers agree that a uniform dress code would lessen disciplinary problems, the writer of sentence B feels that it would nearly eliminate them, or at least eliminate as far as is humanly possible. The writer doesn't need to spell this out for you because his word choice should make his position clear.

Here's another example.
A: The school board instituted a strict new dress code.
B: The school board instituted a tyrannical new dress code.

Do these two sentences mean the same thing? Again, not quite. Both strict and tyrannical show that the dress code is tough, but they suggest very different levels of toughness. A strict dress code is not as tough as one that is tyrannical. Nor is it as troubling. After all, tyrannical means controlling others through force or threats. Thus, strict suggests that the policy is tough, but may be acceptable. Tyrannical suggests that the policy is tough and unacceptable.

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