E.M. Forster said, “How do I know what I think until I see what I say?” It almost sounds like a riddle, but it actually makes perfect sense.
Writers usually write a rough draft with simple, easy words. As they go back to edit and revise that’s when the imagination comes to life and they realize the material could use more descriptive words to tell the story. It’s this process that helps the writer ‘see’ what he’s thinking. It also gives the reader a more vivid mental image and allows them to see what the writer wants them to see.
If every picture tells a story, then all words should paint a picture in the readers mind. Using well-chosen, specific words instead of general words will paint the picture in more detail and bring the writing to life.
Look at the sentence, “The rain fell against the window.” It tells you it’s raining but it really doesn’t describe anything. Now think about, “The rain pattered against the window.” Do you get the image of a light rain hitting the glass? You weren’t told it was a light rain shower, but the word ‘pattered‘ conveyed that message didn’t it? If the sentence were changed to, “The rain pounded on the window.”, then you would get the image of a heavy rain or thunderstorm.
If I write a review on computer software that I think is useful and I simply say, “Software Z is a nice tool to have.”, you aren’t very interested are you? If I said it was ‘nifty‘ or ‘smokin’ hot’, those words would grab your attention and you’d probably check the software out.
Lets look at the word ‘car‘. There’s nothing grand about a car, it doesn’t paint a very vivid mental image. If I use the word ‘sedan‘, then the reader gets an image of a nice, well maintained car. On the other hand, if I use the word, ‘jalopy‘, the reader gets an image of a run-down, old clunker.
Words have a literal meaning, it’s a words’ denotation. Sometimes words also have a connotation or a meaning that’s been given to a word based on attitude. Connotations either give the reader a positive or negative feeling or mental image.
If I use the word, ‘work‘, many people associate it with something negative, “Oh man I have to go to work today.” If I choose the word ‘profession‘ instead, it paints a more positive image in the mind of the reader.
When you’re writing, think about the mental image you want the reader to have and choose specific, descriptive words to ‘show’ the reader the picture in your mind. If you’re writing content for the web, choose words that will draw the reader in. Web writing is much like advertising, and we all know how well advertising uses a play of words to get our attention.
Writing should be informative but you also want to invoke the senses of the reader. It’s more likely they will remember a smokin’ hot piece of software you wrote about instead of just a nice piece of software.