Words mean things

A fountain pen writing with black ink on ruled notebook paper.

This post is part of a writing advice series. Writing clearly is one of the most important — and overlooked — skills.

“Words mean things” is one of my favorite expressions. It’s so obviously true, but at the same time it expresses a deeper meaning: seeming synonyms carry different implications. This is particularly true when someone is looking for cause to disagree with you. You must choose your words carefully.

For example, “always” and “never” are very powerful words. When taken literally, they’re almost never true. If the situation calls for rhetorical flourish, that’s one thing. But most cases don’t call for rhetorical flourish; they call for accuracy. When you’re presenting information — particularly contentious policy or technical changes — you want people to argue about the facts, not the wording.

Word choice doesn’t just matter when people are looking for an argument. When I write the weekly Fedora blocker bug status report, I’m careful to distinguish between updates that contain a candidate fix and updates that contain a verified fix. The former, even if someone is confident, indicates that we haven’t tested the fix yet. It might not work. It might break other things. A verified fix, on the other hand, is one that we know works.

You should also be careful about what your words imply. You’ve probably read to avoid including words like “just” and “simply” in instructions. These words often paper over complexity and assumptions that the writer is aware of but the reader isn’t. When you talk about how simple something is and the reader has trouble, they’ll assume they’re the problem. They might be, but it’s more likely that the instructions are insufficient. If you find yourself using words like that, remove them and ask yourself “what are the scenarios where this step can go wrong?”

While it’s important to be careful with your word choice, don’t get too caught up in it. You can spend forever (rhetorical!) agonizing over your word choices and still have people misunderstand. This is particularly true when not everyone is a native speaker of the language you write in. With practice, you naturally improve in your word selection — you’ve learned the hard way which words get misunderstood. But it’s worth spending some time reading what you’ve written and asking what good-faith misinterpretations exist.

This post’s featured photo by Aaron Burden on Unsplash.

Ben formerly led open source messaging at Docker and was the Fedora Program Manager. He is the author of Program Management for Open Source Projects. Ben is an Open Organization Ambassador and frequent conference speaker. His personal website is Funnel Fiasco.


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