What travel can teach us about choosing the right words

Printing press letters in the shape of a world map.

During my gap year around the world, I interacted with many cultures that spoke English as their second language. I always tried to pick up as much of the local language as possible, but as I have a rare gift of being able to completely forget something five seconds after I learn it, conversations were mostly held in my mother tongue.

Of course, I needed to make sure I was understood. The price I paid for my tuk-tuk/camel/taxi ride depended on it.

It was interesting to see how much my communication style changed during the course of my travels. I couldn’t ramble on as I normally do, with one story running into the next. I had to choose my words carefully, making sure each word I used was the right one for what I needed to say.

It’s the same with writing. Whether you are writing web copy, emails, promotional materials or a press release, using the right words will allow you to communicate with clarity. Here’s how:

Write, then edit

It’s far easier to cut down your copy than it is to sit and stare at a blank page. So write what you think you need to say, with as much rambling as you like, then sleep on it. When you return, you will be able cut down, move around and edit sentences to make sure they are clear and concise.

Tailor the message

Like any writing, we need to consider our audience. What language do they use? Will a more colloquial word express your sentiments better than the formal term? Go on, get the thesaurus out. But remember, the right word isn’t necessarily the most complex, or the simplest. It’s the one that best conveys your meaning.

The tone

When choosing the right words, tone is important. The below examples convey the same message, but by using different words, the ‘voice’ is considerably different. Make sure you set the tone of your text from the start, so you can choose appropriate words as you go along.

“Like a young child with a messy ice-cream cone, the rainbow lorikeet gets the nectar and pollen all over it’s head!”

“Vigorous feeding results in the rainbow lorikeet’s head becoming covered in nectar and pollen.” 

Show, don’t tell

It’s the first rule of writing and sometimes the trickiest. Don’t tell them they will be amazed by your new product, show them why. You can do this by explaining the benefits to the buyer (‘receive support whenever you need it’), rather than boring them with a long list of the features (’24-hour helpdesk’).

For most people, spending hours choosing the right words isn’t the most fun (personally, I love it), but if it means your readers will skim gracefully over your copy and immediately understand your message, then it’s well worth it.

You may even avoid eating breakfast in someone’s home in Vietnam because she thought you said ‘I’m hungry’, when what you really meant was, ‘Is this a restaurant?’.

What do you think? Do you find it difficult to choose the right words when travelling, or writing?

I'm an SEO copywriter and brand storyteller based in Sydney, who's besotted with words, good stories and hot chips. I'm currently studying a Master of Arts in Creative Writing at Macquarie University.

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