4 Ways to Find the Right Words

My oldest daughter has always been a chatterbox.

She babbled and sang at just a few months old. She spoke in complete sentences long before she turned two. She loves to talk, and talk, and talk.

My second daughter is the opposite. She was a quiet baby, and when she did start talking, she struggled with a stutter and a speech impediment.

Over time, my second-born became extremely moody. She started hitting, throwing things, crying and whining over just about anything. For months, she was almost always angry or upset.

It took me a while to realize she was frustrated because she couldn’t find the right words. She either couldn’t say them, couldn’t say them clearly, or couldn’t speak quickly enough to keep up with her older sister.

As adults, we can feel this same frustration when we can’t think of the right words. What do you say in a difficult conversation with a family member? What are the right words for an email about a sensitive topic? Which words do you use to get your business message across to your customers? Any one of these situations can overwhelm us and make us give up. So we don’t tell that family member what needs to be said. We don’t write the email. We don’t even try to figure out the best way to tell customers how our business can help them. In the end, we’re even more frustrated.

But it doesn’t have to be this way. We don’t have to avoid words altogether just because we’re afraid we don’t have the right ones.

Here are four strategies that can help you find the right words.

1. Read (or listen to) good writing.

When we put good food into our bodies, we feel better. When we put good words into our minds, we speak and write better.

A couple of years ago, I found a great booklist of classic children’s literature and started getting the books from the library. I aimed to read aloud to my daughters for at least 30 minutes each day. My second daughter’s vocabulary exploded. I’d hear her saying words like “proactive” and “independent” when playing with her sisters.

Exposure to good writing stretches our minds beyond the words we use every day. The point of reading isn’t to become a Shakespearean bard in our communication, but to create a deeper well of words we can draw from.

2. Talk it out. 

Talk it out with someone who’s a good listener and is trustworthy. When we feel comfortable with another person, we relax and aren’t as self-conscious about our words. We just tell them how we feel.

I often call my best friend when my mind’s a mess about something. She’s a great listener who gets to the heart of the matter way better than I can.

Sometimes it’s hard to find the right words because we’re so involved in the thing we’re doing, or because we’re knee- or neck-deep in the struggle. Someone with an aerial view can help us clarify what we need to say.

3. Write it down and don’t edit (yet).

Ernest Hemingway said, “The first draft of anything is sh*t.” Free writing, a first draft, or a brain dump is simply getting the raw material of your thoughts on paper (or on screen, if you prefer typing). That raw stuff gives you something to mold and shape into your final piece.

I love how author Shannon Hale describes a first draft as “simply shoveling sand into a box so later I can build castles.” If you don’t put any sand in your box, you won’t be able to build anything. Keep it simple. A list or a short outline can be great starting points.

4. Ask others for help. 

Once you have your first draft, show it to someone you trust and ask them how you can make it better. This can be the same person you talked with in #2, a friend who’s great with words or editing, or a hired editor if you’re working on a professional project. Another person’s perspective can help you clarify your thoughts. If you’re not sure whether your words make sense, the easiest way to find out is to ask somebody else!

A few years ago, I wrote a letter to someone who was repeatedly making my life difficult. Before I sent it, I showed the first draft to a close friend. Getting her thoughts on the letter not only showed me what I needed to change, but also made me feel more confident to say what I needed to say.

I’m happy to share that my second daughter outgrew her stutter and speech impediment. Today, she’s an amazing reader and a budding writer. She spends her days filling her first-grade composition notebook with funny stories and poems.

Even though she’s just six years old, these four strategies — exposure to good writing, talking with others, just writing it down, and asking for help — have led her to the right words.

I hope these tips help you find the right words, too.

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