How a Copy Editor Can Help You with Word Choice

Omit needless words.
— William Strunk and E.B. White, The Elements of Style

A post that’s recently been making the rounds online lists ten words to cut from your writing. While writers could quibble all day about the accuracy of this list and what other words should be added, the point is valid. Word choice matters. Each word matters. Readers know this, sometimes subconsciously. Good editors know this. Good writers know this. Every word should add to the story. If a word doesn’t enhance meaning or create integral imagery, cut it. Kill your darlings. As easy as this is to say, the concept can be difficult to apply to your own writing.

As a copy editor, I pay attention to word choice to help ensure that each word matters.

This might involve pointing out when a writer has inadvertently used the wrong word. Did you mean “callous” (adjective, being hardened and thickened; feeling no emotion) or “callus” (noun, a thickening of or a hard thickened area on skin or bark)? “Compliment” (noun, an admiring remark) or “complement” (noun, something that completes something else or makes it better)? “Tortuous” (adjective, having many twists and turns) or “torturous” (adjective, causing great pain or suffering)?

Another mistake I see is the same word used too frequently.

An hour later, Charlotte realized she was lost. The sun had become a vague blur, its rays lost among the ivy-covered trees, so she had no hint as to her direction. When lost, she remembered from some outdoor safety class she had taken ages ago, one was supposed to stay put, to avoid becoming even more lost.    

While subtle, the overuse of “lost” starts to become repetitive.

Another example:

After several minutes of running in circles of panic, Charlotte stopped to catch her breath. Her mind oscillated between her options. Should she heed the warnings of her memory and stay put, even though no one would be looking for her? Or should she press forward, because the forest had to end somewhere? As her lungs filled, the wind rose. Branches oscillated, and leaves spiraled toward an opening in the trees, giving her the answer she needed.  

While “oscillate” is a vibrant verb, using it twice in succession creates a jarring sensation for the reader. “Wait, didn’t I just read that word a couple sentences ago?”

Finally, some words (like those on the “Ten to Cut” list) don’t give your writing any umph. As a high school English teacher, I used to groan (sometimes out loud in my empty classroom) when I was correcting an essay littered with vague words like “things,” “stuff,” “it,” and “they.” “Things” and “stuff” could refer to shoehorns or Chia pets or something else completely; use specific words so your readers know what you’re talking about. “It” and “they” can work if you’ve clearly defined these pronouns, but sometimes writers don’t: “They say that the threat of the death penalty keeps people from committing crimes.” Who’s “they”?  

Now, we’re all guilty of these transgressions. English is an insanely complex language, and writing well is challenging. (You can’t imagine how many times I tweak my own writing before publishing, and then I still see words I want to change.) But that’s where a copy editor comes in. We all need someone else to read our work.