Each time you use a word it loses power

One of the last things I do before posting an article  is to read it over to see if I have used words repeatedly. If I have, I change them for synonyms, or find a new way entirely to communicate the thought. I do this because I do not like the way a word looks the second time around. Somehow it has less power. It is no longer itself, just a shadow of its first usage, something a reader will just skip over.

photoI’m not sure why this is, but I think it is related to our love of novelty. There are studies that show we look at new things more than at formerly seen things. Even the youngest babies notice what is fresh. So each time your word is used, it loses strength.

The bigger the word, the more quickly it loses force. Composition books say to use really big words only once per piece. I suppose this is true, but I try to use simple words whenever they are available. Short words do not age in the same way long words do. Instead, the sentence has to do the work. So reread your writing. Replace the biggest words after first usage and see if your prose doesn’t feel more vibrant.

It is very hard to write about this without feeling really self conscious. What words have I used twice here? What should I replace? Obviously I made a decision to keep repeating “word.” Here are some danger words in this text: repeat, power, novelty, writing, vibrant.

You might want to do a test. Give a two paragraphs to a friend, one with repeated big words, one with replaced big words. See which one they like best. Happy writing!


About Joan E. Strassmann

Evolutionary biologist, studies social behavior in insects & microbes, interested in education, travel, birds, tropics, nature, food; biology professor at Washington University in St. Louis
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