Value Density in Writing: Choosing Words Carefully

Words are vessels. They carry meaning, intent, and tone. Just as important as what we say is how we say it. We want to select effective, compelling words that flow naturally. Accordingly, we want to minimize low-value, or throwaway, words: words that don’t add much in the way of interest, persuasion, or enticement.  They’re the words we see all the time. Common culprits include very, like, so, good, great, best, nice, fun, way, really, some, and feel.

I call these throwaway words the crows and squirrels of the word world. As much as I love crows and squirrels (a topic for another time), I see them routinely throughout the day, at least where I live. Most of us tune them out. Articles (a, an, the) are crows too…pigeons, actually…but, given their job, you can’t avoid them. That said, whenever you are able to start a sentence without them, you should.

Word choice + word economy = efficient communication. You want to get your message across using as few words as possible.

  • You don’t “feel sad” or “feel scared” – you’re simply sad or scared.
  • You’re not “very tired” – you’re exhausted.
  • You weren’t “so scared” – you were terrified.
  • He wasn’t “very mad” – he was furious.

Make cautious friends with the thesaurus. You want a list of backup options at your disposal, but not at the expense of sounding natural and like you. Remember, too, that thesaurus options aren’t 100% synonyms, and words listed as synonyms have nuanced meanings. 

The downside is that you’re likely to work harder than others. You’re considering words more carefully and you aren’t filling out your writing with unnecessary text (thankfully, most teachers and instructors have word or character maximums these days, so, in great part, the temptation to add fluff words is removed). The upside? Your writing will be efficient and value dense. And, if well punctuated with a small arsenal of punctuation marks, it will flow with cadence and rhythm. It will take the reader along effortlessly. It will sing. I call this tight writing. 

When we’re texting and talking, it’s perfectly fine to say we’re soooo tired, having fun, or that something or someone is awesome. But, when putting your words on paper, particularly a formal assignment, essay, or project, you want to go with words that are interesting and visually compelling, while remaining conversational, approachable, and relatable. This is especially vital in your opening line, or “hook.” Take a look at two options for starting an informative essay on skateboarding:

  • The best way to learn to ride a skateboard is to…
  • Cruising your board at maximum speed and skill is yours with…

Note the word choice and visual composition of letters within each word. You feel the wind in your hair in one more than the other, and you’re further inclined to read on.

The shorter your assignment or project, the more important value density in writing becomes. If you’re writing a 300-400 word essay for a competition or a 650 word count maximum for a college application essay, you need to make each word count — a lot. It’s prime real estate. And, in this competitive “market” of college application essays, cover letters, course papers, and whatever else you find yourself needing to write, you want to stake your claim with substance and style.

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