Words to Avoid

I’ve been watching figure skating on TV since high school. Years ago, Dick Button (my favorite commentator) started a competition broadcast with a dramatic announcement: figure skating rules had changed. The new rules encompassed every aspect of competition: skating elements, scoring, music, and costumes.

Button mentioned the changes again and again that weekend: “We’re going to see something different now!”

But here’s the thing. I never found out what those changes were or what they meant. Were restrictions eased, or did the rules tighten? What was their purpose? To challenge the skaters more – or to add pizzazz to the competitions (which were big moneymakers on TV)? Most important, what did Button think of those changes – were they good or bad for the future of figure skating?

I never found out. Not once in that competition did Button explain what the changes were. (This was – of course – decades before the Internet, so I couldn’t just Google “figure skating rules” to get the answers to my questions.)

That frustrating weekend can be laid at the door of two bad habits that beset writers as well as sports announcers:

  1. Forgetting to put yourself into your viewers’ (or readers’) shoes.
  2. Using words that confuse rather than clarify.

Today I’m going to deal with the second point. Here are some words to put on your Do Not Use list:

change  alter  modify  revise  different

The problem is that these words are vague. Instead of change, alter, modify, and revise, consider these words: reform, improve, worsen, damage, help, enrich, enhance, harm, fix. For different, substitute better, worse, finer, superior, inferior, stricter, looser…you get the idea.

If you’re not finding the word you want, try a comparative word or phrase: stronger, happier, sadder, more clear, more miserable, and so on.

This is also a good opportunity to reinforce the first point: don’t forget about your readers. Put aside your excitement about what you know and try to think about what your readers don’t know. Trust me – they will thank you for it.

                        Dorothy Hamill


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