Three tips to help you think harder about your word choices as a journalist

(EDITOR’S NOTE: We’re back for the year, applying the new model for the blog with the Wednesday post being about writing and/or reporting. If you missed Mass Com Monday, you can find it here. Please continue to  send suggestions for improvement  or lists of things you need covered here. — VFF)


Students have often told me that when they are writing a story and they hit a lazy patch, a dumb phrase or something else that doesn’t make for good copy, they hear my voice in their heads, barking at them to fix it.

I, too, have a voice like that in my head and it belongs to Cliff Behnke, the former managing editor of the Wisconsin State Journal. Even today, decades since I last saddled up at a terminal in that newsroom, Cliff still scares the hell out of me.

He had the ability to parse words in such a way that made you feel horribly inadequate for not seeing your failings before he did. I can still remember the first experience I had where he did this. I had written a caption for a photo that noted there were “89 different model railroad train layouts” at the expo center.

Cliff made the point that, of course they’re different. Could I imagine if there were 89 of them and they were ALL IDENTICAL? So why bother with “different?”

That kind of insight became a big part of my writing, not just in shedding the word “different” (another one of Cliff’s peeves was “new” as in “They built a new school.” Has anyone ever built an OLD school?), but also in learning to challenge every word I wrote, and more than a few of them that I read. Take this headline from Deadspin for example:

Sexual assault is a horrible, terrible, absolutely no-good thing, so do we need the word “disturbing” to describe the details? I really went through pretty much every iteration of any potential detail I could think of to find one that wouldn’t fit in the realm of disturbing. I came up empty.

The headline could have used any one of a dozen other relatively meaningless words that could draw in a reader. For example, the writer could have gone with “shocking” details that might involve some really weird stuff this idiot tried as compared to the more banal details like he reeked of Polo and drove a Tesla. At least in that case, we wouldn’t have a “new/different” kind of situation here.

With that in mind, here are a couple hints on how to challenge your word choices in journalistic writing:

Addition by subtraction: In the case of “new” or “different” or “disturbing,” you find that the word really doesn’t add anything by being there. No  one would think they built an old school, had 89  identical model railroad layouts or had some fun and exciting details about a sexual assault. Thus, feel free to eliminate the word.  Occasionally, when I challenge a word in this  fashion, I go back to this scene from “A Few Good Men:”

“I felt his life might be in danger…”

“Grave danger?”

“Is there another kind?”

If you lack the internal level of sarcasm to make this work on a daily basis, I’m sure you have a  friend, colleague or definitely a professor of journalism who can help you sharpen that part of your personality.


I do not think that word means what you think it means:  Looking up words is always a good idea,  as not every definition fits the intended meaning. I’m sure one of my students would like to have back about two years of his music reviews in which he kept using “penultimate” to mean “super-extra-ultimate” when it really means “second to last.”

However, I’m even looking at words that people tend to use interchangeably that can add opinion or shift the truth of an issue in an unforeseen way. Consider the words “change” and “improve.”

Both can be true,  but they don’t mean the same thing, even if people involved in a situation kind of wish they did:

“Mayor John Smith said the construction will change the traffic flow along Interstate 21.”

“Mayor John Smith said the construction will improve the traffic flow along Interstate 21.”

An improvement always presupposes change. That said, a change CAN be, but isn’t NECESSARILY an improvement. EXAMPLE:

CHANGE 1: Your landlord has installed a set of handrails on your staircase to make it easier and  safer for you to get into the house. 

CHANGE 2: Your landlord has removed the steps from your house and replaced the lawn with a moat full of starving alligators.

Clearly, both change your housing situation, but only one is an improvement.Keep an eye on words that couch reality like “development,” “benefit” and other such things that really need a look to see if they’re really just a “change” kind of thing.


Go back to the Holy Trinity: Most of the reason we get into a jam in writing is because we don’t have that solid noun-verb-object core that makes for the start of a strong sentence. If you can start with those three elements, most sentences will dramatically improve.

Even more, the quality of each element can eliminate the need for those ineffective descriptors that we’ve discussed above.  In the Deadspin headline you get “Details emerge from complaint” as your noun, verb and object elements. “Emerge” makes it sound like something out of a sewer-monster horror movie at best. “Details” couldn’t be more vague if you tried.

Stronger focus on the noun-verb-object structure could really make for a stronger headline:

Texans’ minority owner sexually assaulted women through groping, digital penetration, court complaint states

If that feels too forward, you could go with something a little less active and a little more tame:

Texans’ minority owner accused of sexual assaults, including digital penetration and groping a woman through her underwear

Think about how concrete your noun can be and how vigorous your verb can be. In some cases, if you have to go with a weaker verb, adding clarity and value to the noun and the object can draw the readers into the piece.

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