Monday, July 21, 2014

3 Simple Tips to Ensure You Use the Right Word (or When to Promote a Brain Surgeon)



"Because of her notoriety as a brain surgeon, the hospital board was thrilled to name her head of the department.”

Huh? Using the word notoriety in that sentence sounds like it's a good thing to have on your resume. It’s not. Think about what the word notorious means. See? Notoriety—a bad thing—is not what the writer of this sentence means to assign to this stellar professional. If the brain surgeon were known for her notoriety, that hospital board would at least think twice about promoting her, right? If the words fame, renown, and maybe even celebrity were connected to her name . . . maybe. The word notoriety . . . not so much.

Still, I see the word notoriety misused all the time, even in published books. (Don’t tell him I told you, but I just saw this word misused—not even in dialogue—in a John Grisham novel. Sigh.)

Not quite as disturbing is use of a word that is not quite wrong, but neither is it quite right. Then again, Mark Twain seemed to find use of the almost-right word a big deal. He said, The difference between the almost right word and the right word is really a large matter—'tis the difference between the lightning-bug and the lightning.” 

So how do you ensure you don’t use the wrong or almost-right word? If you didn’t realize you were making a mistakeand we all make themin the first place, it’s quite possible you won’t recognize it even as you revise and edit your work. Here are three simple tips you can try:

1.       Google a phrase like “wrong word.” When you do this, links for all sorts of helps come up—like lists of words often used incorrectly. For instance, are you not sure about the difference between the words ensure, insure, and assure? Do the words affect and effect drive you nuts?  Find a simple, easy-to-use source you like that prompts you to make the right choice, print it out or bookmark it, and use it.

2.       Keep a list of words you know you tend to use incorrectly. When you revise and edit your work, search your document for those pesky words to see if you have done it again! Find, fix, and relax. Do this enough times and maybe, after a while, you’ll have made a wrong word to right word switch in your brain and won't have to refer to the list as often.

3.       Seek out a “word freak” as a beta reader. Beta readers are people who give you feedback before you send your work offto an agent, editor, contest, or self-publishing site. Make one or more of your readers people who have to bite their tongues to keep from correcting friends, family, and even strangers with, “Did you mean _______?” You know you know some of those people, and chances are, they’ll notice any “wrong words.”

For readers, does it stop you cold when you see a word misused in a book? If yes, and you know a writer, ask if he or she might like you to be a beta reader. They might say no, but they might also say, “Yes!”

For writers, do you have other tips for finding any wrong words in your work in progress?

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