Choosing the best word in your writing
Updated: Oct 14, 2019
As writers, we work with words the way a sculptor uses chisels, files, and hammers.
The words we choose and the way we arrange them determines our success, so choosing the exact word needed to convey an idea, emotion, characterization or setting is crucial.
As Mark Twain said, “The difference between the almost right word and the right word is really a large matter--it's the difference between the lightning bug and the lightning.”
Know the context of what you're saying. All words carry connotations, both personally to the reader and also culturally to society. Authors need to be conscious of the connotations of the language they select. I once saw an ad for a portrait photographer that used the phrase, Olde-Tyme Photos. (I won't even get started on "cute" spelling used in marketing: kat instead of cat and krazy instead of crazy. It's a personal pet peeve of mine, so . . .) Anyway, I'm sure that photographer thought their word choice was cute, but they probably didn't realize that TYME is an acronym for take your money elsewhere, which is NOT the best message for a company to spread.
Use the most specific word to carry the strength of your meaning. Aside from the connotation words carry, it’s important to select the best word for your application. Instead of using the word anger/angry to describe the emotion of your character, use a more specific word such as irritation, outrage, frustration, passion, jealousy, and disgust to name a few. Dive beneath the surface to find the best meaning. If Sally were to discover she just won a big prize, she wouldn’t simply be happy, she’d be delighted.
Even if words are synonymous, they can convey different meanings. Look at this simple sentence: The eager applicant waited patiently in the lobby. In my humble opinion, I think that's a fine sentence. It paints a flattering picture of the job hunter. I took that sentence and went through the thesaurus to find synonyms to construct this sentence: The wishful candidate lingered calmly in the lobby. The words in the second sentence are all synonyms of the words in the first sentence. But can you see the differences? I would certainly feel more confident in hiring the first person, wouldn’t you? Speaking of synonyms, have you ever paged through The Synonym Finder? It's a great help!
Stay away from the dreaded cliché. Nothing makes writing more boring than using old clichés. Be creative, and find a new way to convey an old meaning. Instead of saying a character had knots in her stomach, say she had a group of jolly gnomes doing a conga dance through her intestines.
Vary your descriptions. Sometimes as writers we tend to use the same kind of description over and over for our characters or settings. I discovered a great little book that is a great jumping off place to create new ways to say the same old thing. It’s the Romance Writer’s Phrase Book. Check it out.
Don’t refer to something generically when you can be more specific. Instead of a shady tree, your character might think of it as a majestic cottonwood. Call it a blue jay, not just a bird. But be careful not to overdo it though, language that is too rich can be tiresome to the reader.
This article certainly isn’t the end-all-and-be-all of word choice advice. Consider it an invitation to being more selective when choosing your words. Write on, friends!