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Editing for Word Choice

Editing for Word Choice

Author: Gavin McCall

This lesson shows how to edit word choices.

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Welcome to English Composition. I'm Gavin McCall. Thanks for joining me.

What are we going to learn today? Today we'll be learning about how writers edit their work to optimize the word choices they make. In doing so, we'll talk about how writers should consider their audience, sentence clarity, and whatever slang, informality, cliches, or euphemisms they might have in their draft, as well as whether the words they're using really mean what they think.

As we'll remember, editing is a process of improving the sentences, word choices, and overall style of an essay or other piece of writing. Word choice, the second part, can have a strong effect on the tone and style of an essay, and then how the audience receives and responds to the writing.

When beginning to edit for word choice, one of the first things writers should do is look for words that repeat. It's very common for writers to use repetitive language during the drafting process, but since using the same significant words repetitively, is distracting to readers. And it can make the essays ideas seem less interesting. It's important for writers to remove any unnecessary repetitions before the editing process should be considered complete.

Obviously, we're not talking about words like the, a, he, she, we, or other small but important words. Mostly we're talking about bigger, more noticeable words, especially those are integral to the essay's subject matter, words that will be ringing in our readers ears if we use them too much.

When re-reading a draft, it's a good idea to mark any repeated words and vary them in the next draft, particularly if the words appear close together.

As is true with just about every other part of the writing process, when writers are editing their manuscripts for word choice, they should consider their intended audience. They should ask, first of all, who that audience is and whether they have made word choices that are likely to appeal to them and fulfill their goals for the essay. Other things to consider are how emotionally charged the language is and whether the level of formality is appropriate and even the anticipated reading level of the audience. If, for example, a college student in an advanced education course was assigned to write a speech to be given to high school freshman about entering college, it might not be a good idea to use too many words like initiative, curriculum, and extenuating circumstances, when simpler synonyms like program, coursework, and emergency situation would do fine.

And at the same time, if that same student was writing a proposal for a new college course, he or she should probably not include informal language that the Supervisory Committee is unlikely to appreciate. She wouldn't want to write, for example, that her proposed class would be so much better than all the stupid classes they offer now. Here it's not so much a problem with the words themselves but how they're used. Taking that kind of tone, with that kind of audience, is unlikely to work out well. And no matter what audience you're writing for, it's important to recognize the level and type of expected diction, so the word choices in a text are aligned with the intended audience's needs and expectations.

One problem that beginning writers often have is that they tend to slip into using words that are vague, needlessly big or fancy, old-fashioned or jargon. Often this happens because students and beginning writers think these words sound more academic, formal, and mature. While it's important to stretch out our vocabularies when writing, I advise against using words that are either unfamiliar or unnecessary for the context. The goal for almost any writing project should be a natural-sounding and clear voice. The best writers strive for clarity and cut out vagueness in their word choices and will generally avoid stuffy or overly formal word choices, too, as they tend to do more to get in the way then actually convey information.

That being said, sometimes big, old-fashioned, or jargon words are the best choice, either because of appeal to an audience or because they're simply the best words to say whatever it is you're trying to say. When editing, take some time to look for words that are needlessly fancy as well as anything unclear, vague, or otherwise imprecise, and change any of these words you find to ones that are simpler or more accurate.

In language, more often than not, less is more. As an example of a text that's using words it probably doesn't need to be using, consider this paragraph. "Many people consider the President's apparent inability to render a timely decision regarding the upcoming deadline for funding privatized medicine allowances a grievous error, or mayhaps an intentional slight in the direction of the multitude of taxpayers who would be impacted."

As you can see, this writer made some odd word choices as well as the way they're put together. But now, consider this edited version. Can you spot the changes I've made? First, I changed the unnecessarily complex phrasing in the first sentence. And then I decided that mayhaps is too old and archaic a word to use here. So I changed it to "perhaps." Then I shortened "in the direction of the multitude of taxpayers" to "the people." And finally, I decided that simply saying these people would be impacted was too vague. So I added a little more detail. So the argument I'm making has a little more context to work with.

Another one of the common mistakes that beginning writers make is using language and words that aren't considered appropriate for academic writing, slang, including online shorthands like LOL for laugh out loud are almost always inappropriate. Slang means language that people use that's outside of official English.

You shouldn't, for example, refer to someone as emo in an essay, even if that's the quickest way to describe that person. And you shouldn't refer to a car as a ride or a police officer as a cop or anything but squeezed fruit as juice. You probably shouldn't even say that someone acting insane was being nuts, not because your audience wouldn't understand what you're saying, though that is a risk with some academics, but because the genre of academic writing is one that uses more formal language. And slang isn't considered a part of it, at least not yet.

Some teachers and assignments will also disprove of the use of contractions, such as won't or can't or even the use of the personal pronoun I, again, because they're considered too informal. But don't worry, writers can and still do achieve a unique and natural voice and style without using slang.

That being said, sometimes writers will have stylistic reasons to use slang or other informal language. This is fine, though you should make sure you have solid defense for doing so and be able to make your case if penalized by a professor or another academic reader. In general, I advise that any writer working in the academic genre should spend some time going through his or her essay and edit out any instances of slang or problematically informal language and replace it with language appropriate to the standards and expectations of written English and the requirements of the assignment.

If, for example, a student turned in an essay that began with this paragraph, I'd recommend he or she takes some time to edit it. Take a look and hopefully you'll see what I mean.

"So I was thinking about how you said we should write something to our chief of police and see what the cops in our town are doing to protect us from terrorism. But I decided I don't want to do that. I mean, what's the point in asking something like that, when whatever they're planning they wouldn't want to tell me anyways, right? So instead, I'm writing about their budgets since one, it's available online, and two, it's more interesting anyway."

As you can see, this paragraph does a pretty good job of introducing the author's stance regarding the subject. But it's doing so in a way that's not appropriate for an academic audience. Now, consider this paragraph, which makes much the same argument, though it does so in a way that would be more likely not to annoy the professor or fail a student.

"Though our was to petition the chief of police and ask what measures the local police are taking to protect our town from terrorism, this essay will instead explore a related and more relevant subject, that of the police department's annual budget. What it reveals about the department's priorities is indicative of their preparations for terrorism and much more."

As you can see, I didn't change much regarding the student's stance, though the tone, the attitude, and the overall style have shifted pretty strongly. I'm not going to bother highlighting the specific changes here, because virtually everything needed to be edited in one way or another.

The last aspect of editing for word choice that we should discuss is meaning. It's very important for writers, especially beginning writers or writers working in an unfamiliar genre, to carefully check their drafts to make sure they're using all of the words that they mean to use and have avoided misspelling or hominem errors. In the air of spell check, this is more and more common, as writers sometimes forget that if they mistype a word, and the mistake they make is an actual word, the spell-checking program will usually not notice the problem, even if the sentence is ungrammatical.

It's important for writers to examine and be aware of the connotations of their words in addition to the denotations, especially when substituting a new word to create more of a language variety. As a reminder, connotation means the associated meeting, while denotation means the technical or dictionary definition of a word. It's important for writers to understand both, in order to better control the impact of his or her words.

What did we learn today? We learned a lot, all about editing for word choice. We talked about how to consider the audience, to edit for clarity, as well as for slang, informal language, cliches and euphemisms, and editing for meaning.

I'm Gavin McCall. Thanks for joining me.