Value Density in Writing:
Choose Your Words Carefully
Guest post by Erika Vanvick, adapted from her article Value Density in Writing: Choosing Words Carefully
As important as what we say, is how we say it.
Words are vessels. They carry meaning, intent, and tone.
We want to select effective, compelling words that flow naturally. Accordingly, we want to minimize low-value, or throwaway, words: words which 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, I see them routinely throughout the day. I tune them out. These words get tuned out too. Articles (a, an, the) are crows too…pigeons, actually, though, given their job, you can’t avoid them. 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.
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.
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 which 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 inclined to continue reading.
The shorter your assignment or project…the more important the value density in writing matters.
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.
Whatever else you find yourself needing to write, you want to stake your claim with substance and style.
About the author
Erika Vanvick is a professional writing coach and writing tutor at To the Letter Writing based in Seattle and offering online tutoring, including SAT test prep and ACT test prep. Erika is also a freelance copywriter & editor.
“I’m in my element when sharing my love of and expertise in all forms of writing, grammar, proofreading, and the art of persuasion.”