The author S.A. Joo's Writing & Editing Advice & Tips

A professional Editor and YA Writer, represented by Black Hawk Literary Agency.

Monday, May 7, 2012

What's in a Word?

Words. I’m an editor who make a living deleting, adding, correcting, and manipulating words. For writers. Writers make a living, or try to, by writing words. But what’s in the words they use? What makes an arrangement of certain words the “award-winning prose” and another something that makes people cringe? 
If writers are serious about their craft, they should be extremely particular about the words they use. The choice of words can change the entire feel of the book. It’s so sad to see some just butchering English. While there are newbies who’ve yet to master the skills, there are stubborn writers who refuse to change, even when they know they’re wrong. Those people are inexcusable, and they are a lost cause for me, so I’m not going to waste a blog post on them. Also, I’m getting tired of arguing with them on Twitter. This post is for the newbies or those willing to learn and change.
This year alone, I’ve worked with 17 writers or authors, and 8 were writers I met through Twitter. Regardless of where I met them, there is a common theme among the newbie writers. Their word usage. Too often, writers feel the need to make their books sophisticated and intelligent by using overtly technical and rarely used words. That is fine if the subject of a book calls for such language and the words are used correctly. But when they’re wrong, their attempts to appear as experienced writers actually backfire and make them look amateurish. 
Think I’m being harsh? Maybe. I’m trying to be helpful. It really bothers me when words that don’t belong in a book just pop up out of nowhere. Those words don’t add anything to the story and change the flow of the writing all together. The words used in a book must fit the genre, time, setting, and the voice of the characters. You wouldn’t have an “average” 8-year-old character thinking to himself “I can’t quite articulate today’s impetuous shift in the climate, but my body will acclimate,” would you? Or would you use popular vocabulary from the last century in a futuristic science fiction? Also, the writers often end up using a wrong word because they assumed the word meant one thing, but, in fact, the word meant something quite opposite. 
And the trend is getting uglier. Blame the lack of quality education in this century. The use of slangs, abbreviations, and non standard words in literature is growing. No, I will not get into another argument over all right vs. alright, but as told in this excellent blog post, writers should know better. As stated in that post and in my tweet, just because the word is in the dictionary and is commonly used, it doesn't mean it belongs in a book. Come on, writers. Your books are not emails to your friends or a casual blog post. They’re professional products and should be treated as such. Remember the advice below.
Know the definition of every, single word you use in your book. 
Ensure the words are standard and acceptable for professional writing.
Ensure they fit the voice of your characters or the narrator. 
Ensure they are readable and can be easily understood by your target audience.
Use every word with intent and give it purpose.

Here are 6 rules on clear writing taken from George Orwell's famous essay, Politics and English Language. I strongly recommend it to every writer.

1. Never use a metaphor, simile, or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print.
2. Never use a long word where a short one will do.
3. If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out.
4. Never use the passive where you can use the active.
5. Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word, or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent.
6. Break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous.

You’re a writer. You have to mean and be responsible for every word you write. Have pride in your craft. Lastly, I want to leave you with this quote because it has always been my favorite. And it also fits this topic.
“You don’t need a dictionary to read Hemingway.”

My editor website is


  1. Great post! I'm guilty of tossing around $5 words when $.50 ones will do. It happens without my even realizing it sometimes. I get so used to throwing around biology lingo in school that similarly big/technical words just creep into my writing like so much kudzu, haha.

    I think the problem is cropping up due in part to the crappy education system (funny I dog on it when I want to work in it) but also due to the casual nature of communication. People type a great deal of their "talk" these days, and the bulk of that is casual lingo. So it's natural that it should spill over into books, especially now that anyone and their brother can upload an ebook for free now.

  2. Yeah, I think a lot of it is genuinely ignorance. I think a lot of people haven't had any formal lessons on the English language since middle school, and therefore simply don't know any better. If they see a word in a dictionary, or if there isn't a squiggly red line under it when they type it, they assume they're good to go.

  3. Your advice here is, as always, spot on.
    Thank you.

  4. Great post, I'm one of those writers who is learning and keen to do so. I began by writing far too many words and using 'clever' words, now I cut whenever I can and try to only use what is necessary to convey my point.
    When I'm writing I think of the phrase 'it's not big and it's not clever' and try to cut from 'big' (too many words) and use real words rather than 'clever' ones!

  5. Another excellent blog post. We are all newbies at some point, but we should all strive to ove past it. You've improved my writing more than I thought possible in the last twelve months and I wasn't even all the 'newbie' anymore.

    Interestingly, I think the step from newbie to amateur is easier than from amateur to master (or whatever word you choose to use for this stage). Once you get to the pointy, technical end of the learning pyramid, you need someone who knows why things should be done in a certain way to help you improve further.

    1. Very good point, Ciara. Ignorance is bliss, but when we learn just enough to realise how much there is to learn, it's not so easy. :)
      Thanks, Sirra, for another valuable post aimed at helping us newbies become better writers.

  6. Excellent blog post and I will definitely take your advice on George Orwell's famous essay, Politics and English Language. Thank you for sharing freely what many have to pay to learn.

    By learning to self-edit with information like this the work our editors is have to do it decreased and we grow in our craft.

    Writers would do well to heed the advice you offer.

    *~ MAJK ~*

  7. Vocabulary is important, but you're so right, Su. Using the wrong word-- no matter how big-- can ruin a scene or just throw off the reader.

    But agents and publishers aren't looking for --easy to read-- book. They expect and demand a higher vocabulary but not pretentious. Try offering a simple adult novel and see how far you get-- no matter the story.

    On word you use too much is 'never'. Never say never, Su. There are situations for everything in writing. Using metaphor, simile, or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print can be cautiously used for humor and lighten a dark scene.

    I truly respect what you say Su! You are a wordsmith and just a smart lady! I hope when I take exception you know it is done as a writer fighting an editor, lol. Something I almost never do except with pretty Asian editors.

    1. Rule 6 actually IS a qualification to the 'Never' rules in 1-5, so she isn't saying 'never' in an absolute sense.

  8. This is great advice, thanks so much!