Notes on Writing: Proper Word Usage

This topic might seem a little elementary to some of you.  I can almost see you shaking your heads and raising your hands in exasperation, “Why, Michelle, must we endure one of your tirades on proper word usage?” My answer, gentle reader, is that many of our Urban authors are misusing entirely too many words!  Well, the exclamation point at the end of that last sentence was probably over kill but this is an issue in Urban writing, a serious issue.

Misuse of words can range from simple errors, such as using they’re (they are) when the correct word would be their (possessive) or there (place), to misuse of words due to misunderstanding a definition.  For example, there is one author whose work I’ve reviewed who repeatedly used the word spurned[i] when a better word might have been spurred[ii].  A sentence may have read something like this:

Jesse was spurned to action by the memory of her best friend lying on the floor gasping for air.

Spurned indicates being turned away or rejected as in the phrase “a spurned lover.”  Whereas spurred indicates being motivated to do something.

Here are a few tips to help us with proper word usage:

  • Keep a dictionary on hand when writing. If you don’t have access to a printed dictionary there are a number of online dictionaries such as

  • Read  “mainstream” and academic literature.  There is nothing better for increasing our vocabulary than reading above the level or outside the genres we normally choose to read.

  • Join a writing group, preferably with a diverse group of writers.  The group will help us see the weaknesses in our writing, including poor word usage, and will help us to improve by critiquing our work and making helpful suggestions.

  • Get people besides Aunt Gladys and Mom to read and comment on the work in progress.  Unless one of them was a high school English teacher, it is unlikely either of them will point out too many flaws in our writing.  They love us too much.

  • Finally, remember it is nearly impossible for us to edit our own work to near perfection.  After laboring over every sentence, each scene, and all the character interaction, it is difficult, if not impossible, to edit our own work objectively.  It is vital that we find professionals who understand the nature of our work to edit for us and to work with us to develop the very best book we can present to the world.

Some people would say I’m nitpicking about the word usage issue.  Maybe we should just accept these errors as a fact of life and move on to enjoy the book.  I have two issues with that line of thinking: 1) Poor word usage and improper grammar can be distracting to the reader, thereby diminishing the quality of his/her reading experience; and 2) Urban authors must realize that excellence will only be achieved by producing a book that is as technically sound as it is entertaining and/or profound.

Urban does not mean substandard so we should expect nothing short of the best from ourselves.


[i] To reject with disdain; scorn; to treat with contempt; despise.

[ii] Anything that goads, impels, or urges, as to action, speed, or achievement.


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