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Good Word Choices For Essays

When you are writing a dissertation, many words and phrases that are acceptable in conversations or informal writing are considered inappropriate.

You should try to avoid expressions that are too informal, unsophisticated, vague, exaggerated, or subjective, as well as those that are generally unnecessary or incorrect.

Bear in mind that these guidelines do not apply to text you are directly quoting from your sources (including interviews).

Too informal

Academic writing is generally more formal than the writing we see in non-academic materials (including on websites). It is also more formal than how we normally speak. The following words and phrases are considered too informal for a dissertation.

Taboo ExampleAlternative
A bitThe interviews were a bit difficult to scheduleThe interviews were (difficult/somewhat difficult) to schedule
A lot of, a couple ofA lot of studies(Many/several/a great number of/eight) studies
AmericaA researcher in AmericaA researcher in (the United States/the US/the USA)
Isn’t, can’t, doesn’t, would’ve (or any other contraction)The sample isn’tThe sample is not
Kind of, sort ofThe findings were kind of significantThe findings were (somewhat significant/significant to some degree)
Til, tillFrom 2008 till 2012From 2008 (until/to) 2012
You, your

(i.e. the second-person point of view)

You can clearly see the resultsOne can clearly see the results

The results can clearly be seen

Too unsophisticated

Some words should not be used because they do not have a scholarly feel. As utilizing too many simple terms makes your writing feel elementary, substitute more sophisticated words when possible. It’s also better to replace phrasal verbs with their one-word alternatives.

Taboo ExampleAlternative
BadA bad resultA (poor/negative) result
Big, humungousA big sampleA (large/sizable) sample
GetThis model gets attentionThis model receives attention
GiveThis chapter gives an overviewThis chapter (provides/offers/presents) an overview
GoodA good exampleA (useful/prime) example
ShowThe below figure showsThe below figure (illustrates/demonstrates/reveals)

Too vague

Using terms that are vague makes your writing imprecise and may cause people to interpret it in different ways. Avoid the below expressions and try to be as specific as possible.

Taboo ExampleAlternative
StuffPeople are concerned about their stuffPeople are concerned about their (belongings, possessions, personal effects)
ThingThe report presents many thingsThe report presents many (details/findings/recommendations)

Too exaggerated

Academic writing is usually unadorned and direct. Some adverbs of frequency (such as always and never), superlatives (which are terms that indicate something is of the highest degree, such as the best), and intensifiers (which are words that create emphasis, such as very) are often too dramatic. They may also not be accurate – you’re making a significant claim when you say something is perfect or never happens.

These terms do sometimes add value, but try to use them sparingly.

Taboo ExampleAlternative
Always, neverResearchers always argue thatResearchers (frequently/commonly/ typically) argue that
Perfect, best, worst, most, always, never (or any other superlative)The perfect solution to the problem(An ideal solution/one of the best solutions) to the problem
Very, extremely, really, too, so (or any other intensifier)This theory is extremely importantThis theory is (important/critical/crucial)

Too subjective

Some words and phrases reveal your own opinion or bias. For instance, if you state that something will obviously happen, you are actually indicating that you think the occurrence is obvious – not stating a fact. Expressing your opinion is usually only appropriate in certain sections of a dissertation (namely the preface, acknowledgements, discussion, and reflection), so take care when using words and phrases such as those below.

Taboo ExampleAlternative
Beautiful, ugly, wonderful, horrible, good, badThe literature review included many good articlesThe literature review included many articles
NaturallyThe participants naturally wanted to knowThe participants wanted to know
Obviously, of courseThe results obviously indicateThe results indicate

Generally unnecessary

You should strive to make your academic writing as concise as possible. Avoid adding words and phrases that do not create meaning, even if you think they give your writing a more refined feel.

Taboo ExampleAlternative
Has got/have gotThis dissertation has got four chaptersThis dissertation has four chapters
Serves to, helps toThis chapter serves to explainThis chapter explains

Generally incorrect

It is not uncommon that words and phrases are used inappropriately, even by native speakers of a language. If you’re exposed to such mistakes often enough, you may start thinking they are correct – but it’s important that you don’t let them creep into your writing.

You should also bear in mind that some of these mistakes relate to things we all frequently mishear (for instance, we often think the speaker is saying would of instead of would have).

Taboo ExampleAlternative
LiterallyThe students were literally dying to participateThe students were (dying/very eager) to participate
Would of, had ofThe study would of consideredThe study would have considered

Other tips

In general, you should also try to avoid using words and phrases that fall into the following categories:

  • Jargon (i.e. “insider” terminology that may be difficult for readers from other fields to understand)
  • Clichés (which are expressions that are heavily overused, such as think outside of the box and but at the end of the day)
  • Everyday abbreviations (e.g. photos, fridge, phone, info)
  • Slang (e.g. cops, cool)
  • Not gender neutral(e.g. firemen, mankind)


Reflective reports sometimes have a less formal tone; if this is what you are writing, you may not have to follow these guidelines as strictly. This may also be true if you are writing the preface or acknowledgements for your dissertation, as these sections have a more personal voice than the rest of the document.

The words your child uses to write can make him seem a grade above (or below) where he actually is. Sophisticated words say “mature writer.” Building vocabulary is a primary way to improve the words used in essay writing, but there are other activities you can do to encourage writers to choose the best words.

Brainstorm Word Replacements

There are some words that are dull enough to be on the list of unwanted words:

  • good
  • bad
  • thing
  • very
  • really
Those words are imprecise, lackluster, and immature. I typically ban those words from essays, forcing my daughter to select a better fitting term that is more descriptive and sophisticated.
Likely your child has a few pet words that she likes to use repeatedly. My daughter is in a phase right now where she uses the word awkward for a myriad of negative situations. Although awkward is otherwise a quality word, her misuse of it makes me add it to her banned word list.
Help your child with word choice by doing some brainstorming activities on my free word choice printables. (This printable is part of my ebook Essay Tune Up.) Of course, the thesaurus is your friend for these kinds of activities. List possible alternatives to boring words and keep those lists handy during revision.

Banish Boring Words!: , a Scholastic book for grades 4-8, looks like a wonderful resource for building a child’s word sense.

No Boring Words Day

Practice replacing boring words like good and bad with more interesting, more precise words in your daily conversations. Choose an outlawed word for the day. When someone says the banished word, he receives a “punishment.” Or keep points throughout the day to see who is the best at avoiding the forbidden words and replacing them with more colorful ones.

This kind of activity works best after you have done the word replacement activities above. By using the listed synonyms in your daily speech, the words will become a natural part of your vocabulary and will spill into essay writing.

Editing for Word Choice

You really can’t expect superior word choice on a first draft. It takes a devoted reading of the essay to analyze the vocabulary without thinking of anything else. That means that working on word choice is something that happens during the revision stage of writing.

I suggest you give your child a highligher and ask her first to look for any of your word outlaws — those on the list above and any others you have added. Then have her look through the essay for additional words that could be replaced with more mature and precise choices.

One danger with this kind of activity is that your child will go overboard with the thesaurus and turn her essay into something very pedantic sounding. The words need to be natural and flow nicely with the tone of the essay. Do choose  words that create mental pictures, that are descriptive and powerful. But don’t make an essay that sounds stilted or awkward. (I just used the word awkward! It is on my daughter’s outlawed word list but not on mine.)

One key rule of thumb is if your child cannot pronounce or express the meaning of a word, he probably should not use it in an essay.


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Filed Under: language artsTagged With: homeschool, teaching, writing