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Picking the Right Word

Polishing a manuscript involves both big picture corrections, such as plot issues or motivation issues for your characters, and incredibly small, picky bits where you’re really bringing out the shine in each sentence you’ve written. Much of this happens when we think about the individual words we use to build our stories. Now, specific word use is more important in shorter fiction than in 100K epics, but care in the choice of words is for everyone. Mark Twain cared about words, and he wasn’t writing picture books. So let’s talk about words.

Synonyms are not interchangeable

One of the things early education is designed to do is to nudge kids toward expanding their vocabulary. And coaxing them to try lots of synonyms in their writing can be part of that. But sometimes we forget that synonyms are similar but not identical.

Consider the following synonyms for walk in the thesaurus:

  • amble
  • hike
  • stride
  • stroll
  • strut
  • trudge
  • wander
  • troop
  • race
  • saunter
  • shuffle

Think about each of those words. They are listed as synonyms for walk, but do they mean the same thing? Are they interchangeable? Can you simply swap one for another when you want some variety?


Consider the following sentence:


Greg walked up to the principal’s desk.


That’s fairly neutral. We don’t know how Greg is feeling about the experience. His body language isn’t telling us anything.


But what if we say “Greg strutted up to the principal’s desk;”


That’s not neutral at all, is it?


Or maybe, “Greg trudged up to the principal’s desk.”


Clearly we envision totally different approaches when we use strut from when we use trudge or wander. I like thesauruses, but when picking a word from a word list like those in a thesaurus, you have to think about all the shades of meaning that come with the word. Words have baggage and we have to make sure they’re carrying the right baggage for the job we need done in the sentence.

Another important thing about using the thesaurus is that you shouldn’t ever, ever, ever choose a word you’re not 100% comfortable using in your own conversations. The writing and polishing of your novel or picture book or short story is not the time to experiment with totally new words that aren’t normally a part of your vocabulary. If you don’t know the word, don’t use it. I’ve read so many manuscripts where the writer is using a big or unusual word incorrectly. Often it’s only slightly incorrectly. Maybe the word is one they found in a thesaurus and they chose it for its uniqueness. So I’ll see, for instance a sentence like, “Billy pettifogged with his parents about his detention.” The word was probably chosen because it’s considered a synonym for argued. Only pettifogging isn’t just arguing, it’s basically debating minutia. It’s getting caught up in the tiniest of details to the distraction from the real point. It’s a unique word because its meaning is very specific, and Billy almost certainly wasn’t pettifogging. Those unique words you don’t use yourself and don’t hear in normal conversation are unique for a reason. (And remember, the definition of “unique” is  “being the only one of its kind; unlike anything else,” so any word modifying “unique” makes no sense! Unique stands alone. Listen for it now, and you’ll hear “very unique” or its equivalent all the time.)  So avoid those unique ones until you know them, really know them. Build your vocabulary through reading not during the writing process.

Precision is Power

Now, having recommended against casual use of synonyms, let’s vote in favor of synonyms. A thesaurus can be a great place to find the word that is exactly what is going on instead of using a generic word that works. Say I’m wanting to be more specific when I’ve written “Bill took a look at Jill’s contact list.” If he’s not much interested, only curious about what has Jill’s attention, he might only glance at it. If he just noticed she has Beyoncé’s phone number, he might gawk at it. If he has stolen her phone to figure out which of the people on the list is a murderer, he’s most likely to study it or maybe scrutinize it. So, much like “walk,” a generic word like “look” doesn’t bring as much to the sentence as a synonym might. But that doesn’t mean there is no place for walk or look. Sometimes I don’t want the reader’s attention skewered by the way the character walked or the way he looked at something. In those cases, I’ll choose the generic because I’m going to put the emphasis on something else.

What’s Your Focal Point 

Have you ever heard decorators talk about a focal point? It’s something in a room that draws the visitor’s attention and everything in the room will be carefully chosen not to distract from it. Well, your sentence has a focal point too. (If it doesn’t, it might not have a reason for being at all.) The sentence should have a reason for being in the story. It serves a purpose. It reveals something to the reader. Figure out what you want the sentence to reveal, and you’ll better choose all the elements of the sentence. A sentence that is designed to reveal the character’s nervousness will have verbs that carry the baggage of nervousness. And you may add some nervous narrative action like the character tugging on the hem of his sweater or pushing his glasses up on his nose or darting glances everywhere except at the place he must go to do the thing that scares him.

Shorter is Stronger

 Word length and word sound are also things to consider when polishing your sentences. Shorter words have more punch than longer words (not universally, of course, since “a” is a really short word with virtually no punch.) Hard consonants have more punch than soft sounds. Think about these synonyms for hit: beat, belt, blast, kick, pop, punch, bash, cuff. Notice how short and hard they tend to be. It’s not surprising that words connected with violence would tend to be blunt instruments themselves. Notice also how people who have to deal with violence on a regular basis often use extra words or obscure words when describing violence: “blunt force trauma” instead of “beating.” The extra words help shield the speaker from the horror of the incident. When choosing words, think about the amount of power you want the verb to have and keep in mind the way the mechanical bits (word length and hard sounds) can play a part.

Keep in mind, also, that repetition can soften the impact of a word. And repetition of sound can even suggest amusement. For example, consider the following: “Once the posse caught up with Bad Bart, they cuffed, clobbered, and kicked him all the way back to town.” Now that sentence contains a lot of violence, but the use of the repeated sounds suggests an almost cartoon violence, one not to be taken too seriously.

Echoes are for Caves, not Manuscripts

Repetition can be a useful device. In early readers, it helps a child become familiar with a harder word. In picture books, it can add an amusing refrain to a book and help the child predict what will come next, which can help with enjoyment and engagement. But repetition needs strict awareness and control. And we’re not always aware or in control. The human brain loves repetition, and it will tend to echo words that have been recently used. That’s part of what causes us to have favorite words––those words that pepper our manuscript to excess. Echoes and favorite words will absolutely weaken a manuscript because they will become distractions for the reader. For example, I use the word “like” entirely too much. Partly it’s because I adore similes. In fact, I enjoy them way too much and will have far too many. And the word “like” tends to point at this overuse of similes. But I also use like casually in lots of ways that become far too distracting. So my search for word repetition and echoes is one of the most important parts of my polishing process. It’s also one of the hardest, because I often won’t see them. I often won’t hear the problem. This is where having another reader or critique partner go over a manuscript with the specific direction of looking for pet words and echoes is helpful. Over the years, it’s allowed me to build a list of my ongoing verbal tics, and I can simply use the search feature in my word processor to hunt every use down and evaluate it. I don’t ban the word “like,” of course, but I pluck out all the ones that I don’t need.

So as you polish word for word, keep in mind the ways words help us and the way they can create problems. We build our stories word for word, so it’s a good idea to be sure we’re always picking the right ones.

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