The Perfect Word – Eight Qualities to Look For

by Debbie Burke


Image purchased from Shutterstock

I can now claim credit for contributing to a TED talk about the search for life on distant planets. Sounds impressive, right? 

My contribution?

One word.

Not an important insight. Not a blinding revelation. Not a ground-breaking development.


One word, and not a particularly important one.

But it was the right word.

Dr. Sarah Rugheimer, an astrophysicist at Oxford (whom I’m privileged to call friend) was selected to give a TED talk about her research into detecting alien life. While preparing her speech, one line she’d written bothered her. She sent it to me for suggestions.

The concept was complicated. The sentence was awkward and ambiguous with double negatives. It lacked parallel construction.

We spent the morning texting variations back and forth. We finally whittled it down to an easy-to-understand line except for one stinkin’ word—something.

Something in fact means nothing. It’s a convenient catch phrase that’s vague and can refer any number of things. We fall back on it in conversation because it’s easy and we’re too lazy to be specific.

But this talk was too important to take the lazy way out.

The discussion with Sarah made me think more deeply into how to find the perfect word. I’ve edited a lot but never really analyzed the process.

In early drafts, don’t worry about perfection. Use whatever words come to mind, even if they’re not very good. These tips are useful after you’ve completed the manuscript when you edit and fine-tune.

What qualities does a writer and/or editor search for that make up perfect word choices?

Here are eight I came up with:

  1. Specific

Take a common word like road. That doesn’t convey much to readers. To create a vivid picture in their mind, consider alternatives: lane, trail, byway, path, street, interstate, thoroughfare, boulevard, avenue, alley, artery.

All mean road but notice how each variation conjures a different type of road.

Laser focus on exactly what you want to express. She wore a sexy dress becomes The silk chemise clung to her body.

Keep narrowing your list of possible words until you hit on the word that exactly reflects what you want the reader to visualize.  

  1. Descriptive

Verbs are perhaps the most important word choices writers make because they push, shove, and elbow the characters into actions that advance the plot. To convey action vividly requires precise verbs.

Crime writers have particular vocabulary needs.

How many ways can you say kill, murder, slaughter, butcher, dispatch, smoke, stab, strangle, garrote, assassinate, terminate, rub out?

How about kidnap, abduct, snatch, capture, shanghai, victimize?

Or con, bilk, swindle, bamboozle, fool, defraud, sham, exploit, deceive?

Jim Bell recently discussed using a thesaurus. I use it often to find verbs that are vivid …as long as they’re not pretentious!

  1. Appropriate

I’m not talking about adult language or NSFW (not suitable for work), although those are important considerations for a writer.

Rather, is a particular word in keeping with the setting, character, and circumstances?

A rural farm locale has a different cadence and rhythm than a noisy, bustling street in Hong Kong.

A preschool teacher probably won’t talk the same way a construction worker does.

In the middle of the flashing strobes of a rave, the character likely isn’t meditating about the meaning of life…although the setting may prompt an existential question: What the &*$# am I doing here?

Choose words that are appropriate for each scene.

  1. Sensory

Smell, taste, and touch are often neglected yet they add great texture to storytelling.

Smell can be flowery, acrid, pungent, stinky, musky, fragrant, mouth-watering, decaying, cloying, wet-dog.

Taste can be bitter, tart, sweet, salty, peppery, sour, rotten, nauseating, rich, creamy.

Touch can be a slap, blow, swat, caress, stroke, punch, slam, hug.

  1. Evocative

What kind of mood do you want to create for different scenes in your story? If a scene is mysterious, chilling, and foreboding, word choices are far different from a cheerful, sunny, carefree picnic.

Is the character slogging through a sweltering, stifling, claustrophobic jungle?

Or hiking in crisp, bracing, autumn air?

Is the character melancholy over the loss of a loved one?

Enraged by a driver who cuts him/her off?

Quivering with anticipation for a reunion with a lover?

  1. Emotional

Saying Rose felt sad or Bill was elated is not good enough. Telling emotions rather than showing them makes flat characters and flat writing.

Readers seek a vicarious emotional experience in books. Our quest as writers is to make readers feel as if they’re inside the character’s skin.

No one wants to be pushed off a cliff in real life. But when they read about a character whose hands are torn by sharp rocks and whose feet flail to stop their free fall, they get to have that experience vicariously…without broken bones and traumatic brain injuries!

Music is an effective conveyor of emotion. Think of songs that make goosebumps rise or carry you back to a forgotten time or experience.

The goal is to find words that evoke emotional reactions as strongly as music does.

In this 2014 article from Frontiers in Psychology, authors Ai Kawakami, Kiyoshi Furakawa, and Kazuo Okunoya state:

“We consider musically evoked emotion vicarious, as we are not threatened when we experience it, in the way that we can be during the course of experiencing emotion in daily life. When we listen to sad music, we experience vicarious sadness.”

What do you want the reader to feel in any given scene? Heartened, hopeful, distressed, depressed, ecstatic, puzzled, disappointed, awed, furious, impatient, frustrated, terrified. Choose the emotion then find ways to depict that feeling through carefully selected words that show the emotion.

  1. Accurate

When using jargon, be sure to use it correctly. Readers are fussy about terminology, meaning writers have to be fussier.

Is it a gun, rifle, shotgun, carbine, pistol, revolver? If you slip up and call a magazine a clip, John Gilstrap will bust you.

Is your character going to arraignment, trial, hearing, sentencing, inquiry, tribunal, proceeding?  Is s/he being questioned, deposed, interrogated, grilled?

Is the job title a prosecutor, county attorney, state’s attorney, district attorney, solicitor?

Is the character facing jail time or prison time? One hint: jail generally indicates minor offenses for a term less than a year. Prison generally means felony offenses with sentences for more than a year.

Even if you think you know the meaning of a particular term, double check.

  1. Resonant

When you find the perfect word, it’s like hitting a high note or that special crack of a bat that sends the ball into the stands.

You know it when you find it.

And readers know because your story is on pitch and memorable.


My one-word contribution to Sarah’s TED talk?


See, I told you it wasn’t earth-shattering. But if we’d settled for a lazy, sloppy, meaningless word like something, listeners might not notice but they would be aware that something was off.


TKZers: Please share the resources and tricks you use to find The Perfect Word.


35 thoughts on “The Perfect Word – Eight Qualities to Look For

  1. I’ve always liked what Mark Twain said about this topic:

    “The difference between the almost right word and the right word is really a large matter. ’tis the difference between the lightning bug and the lightning.”

    Like you (and the esteemed Mr. Bell, esq.), I gravitate to a thesaurus – an old “analog” (book), Roget’s, with yellowed pages dark around edges and that musty, cracked spine smell from the Friends of the Library Book Sale where I picked it up, though I’ll go on-line if I’m not near my bookcase…

    And when I’m working in verse,
    (which can be worse),
    I’ll scan a rhyming dictionary on occasion when nothing comes to mind,
    and I’ll find,
    a “righter” word that might change the rhyme
    scheme, but that gives the “aha” moment, shaking things loose enough so I’ll quit stumbling,
    over one line
    or stanza and push into,
    and through to,
    the finish… though there is also rhythm and scansion to take into account as well… (and if I may, I’ll “refrain” from going into any further detail…)

    • George, I’m awestruck you came up with a poem this early in the morning! So fun!

      And you taught me a new word: scansion.

      Thanks for a great laugh that’s right on pitch!

  2. Excellent post, Debbie. Reasons and examples. Well said.
    When I’m writing, if I know I need a specific word but it doesn’t come to me (most of the time) I use a [XX] placeholder. If a word comes to me, even though I know it could be stronger, I write it anyway. As you say, don’t slow the writing. That’s what edits are for.
    When I do my nightly printout reads, some stronger words might come to me. If they don’t, I flag them for later.
    And a little more on my approach:
    My focus is that these words have to sound like the character would say or think them. Putting in beautiful words just because they’re beautiful won’t work for a reader if it sounds out of character. Or–and to me it’s worse–if they’ll stop the reader because they don’t know what it means.
    Some readers might like learning new words, but in the middle of a novel you want to be a page turner might not be the right time. (Although with an e-reader, all they have to do is press the word for the definition.) Which reminds me of my son’s second grade spelling lessons. He hated dictionary homework night, and when I asked him why, he said, “because there are so many other interesting words and I get distracted.”

    • Thanks, Terry.

      Glad you brought up placeholders. Dennis Foley taught the trick I use. Mark the missing info with “TK” (to come) b/c there are no words that combine those two letters, making it easy to search for.

      Your son definitely inherited your writing gene with his curiosity about words.

  3. Debbie, thanks for a wonderful post. Great ideas. Very helpful.

    I, too, keep Roget’s on the table beside my writing chair. One thing that helps me find the “wrong” words, is having the computer read the manuscript to me. I’ll still need to look for a better word, but hearing the word audibly will sometimes tell me I used a “filler” or lazy word, and I need to look for something more ? DEQ ? – a word with one of Debbie’s Eight Qualities.

  4. Great tips, Debbie. I especially try to remember the sense of smell, because it is underused and yet so evocative. My favorite is from Raymond Chandler (natch) in his story “Bay City Blues.”

    It must have been Friday because the fish smell from the Mansion House coffee-shop next door was strong enough to build a garage on.

  5. Great job, Deb.
    I agree, the right word is key to convey feeling, atmosphere and description. I search for the right words each day as I write. Maybe I should wait for the editing phase and save time.
    For me, listening to online piano jazz is calming, blunts environmental distractions and increases writing progress. Depending on scene content, a couple of my favorites are “Phantom of the Opera” and “Flight of the Valkyries.” Online music options can zing rapid atmospheric twists, focus my thoughts focus and speed my fingers.

    • Thanks, Betty.

      Although I need silence to write, music is a powerful trigger of emotions and inspiration for many authors.

      Why am I not surprised that Flight of the Valkyries is one of your faves?

  6. Thank you, Debbie! Love this post, and everyone else’s tips and tricks.

    I’m also never far away from my dictionary/thesaurus. I’ve loved words since a tadpole, and would sometimes wow the family with some cool word I’d unearthed.

    And thanks, everyone, for reminding me about the five senses, particularly smell. I always forget that one. But since Thanksgiving is just around the bend, my little family party of three (me, the man, and the dog) will soon be enveloped in our bungalow with all of those delicious, memory-evoking odors. Almost my fave time of year.

    And I wish for all of you the very best olfactory experiences this week… 🙂

  7. Terrific post, Debbie. Finding the right word can be maddening, but the scene will always be stronger for the effort. Like you, I use a lazy word if a better one doesn’t come to me right away, then fix during edit/rewrite pass. Though I do have my days where I stare at a sentence FOREVER — stuck — unable to move on till I find the perfect word.

    • Thanks, Sue.

      I *suggested* using lazy words for initial drafts but that doesn’t mean I always follow that advice. Like you, I spend way too much time pecking around for the perfect word when I should move forward. Can’t help it–the ghost of my eighth grade teacher, Mrs. Shore, raps my knuckles if I’m lazy.

  8. Very helpful tips, Debbie. Finding the right word can be a real challenge for me. I tend to go with placeholder words in the first draft, when I’m putting up the scaffolding of the story. The real challenge is to work to find the right ones in the second or third draft. All your tips are great, but the one about considering the emotional impact of a scene on a reader and striving to use words that evoke that emotion in the reader is pure gold. Thank you!

  9. Thanks.

    As I read your post, I opened my WIP and made changes—starting with searches for the accurate term. Suddenly, I can feel the difference between road and street, jail and prison. I refined my use of question, interview, and interrogate.

    Great post.

  10. Really good piece, Debbie, and timely as I’m 1/3 through a new ms draft. This made me stop and think how many times in the past few days I’ve clicked on my upper tool bar. Lots. I have a little trick that I invented about using senses – I have a little yellow sticky note on the side of my screen that says “SSSTF” for Sight, Sound, Smell, Taste, Feel. BTW, I now know what NSFW means. I always wondered that. Thanks!

  11. Delightful post, Debbie! Like most writers, I love words and their uses. I keep the online thesaurus warm during my writing sessions. I once misused “jail” for “prison” and a friend whose initials were DB 😊 pointed it out just before the ms was finalized.

    Sounds like you supplied more than one word to the TED talk, but what a great experience! And the word was CLUE. Ah, as a mystery writer, that’s perfect. Can’t wait to hear the TED talk.

  12. Debbie, it’s great to meet another word enthusiast. (Some say “word nerd.” I say reading a dictionary is fun.) I, too, use the XXX tool while writing and go back in my first edit to find the exact expression that sentence needs.

    My editing clients know me for harping on making more vital, deliberate word choices. I always add to the comment definitions of the word they used and of the one I suggest. The nuances may be small, but they make all the difference in creating the mood, personality, and environment of their scene.

  13. Thank you for this, Debbie, as well as for the update (and the link to your introduction to Sarah, one of my favorite posts of yours). Not many people can lay claim (however modestly) to being the go-to person for one of the brightest lights in their chosen field. We knew it all along, but still.

    Happy Thanksgiving, Debbie!

  14. Great post! Being specific and evocative are key for me now because I’m working on a western. The readers really want to be immersed deep in the setting. (The setting in a western, as we know, is truly the main character).

    • Thanks, Philip. You’re so right about westerns and historicals of any era. A big part of reader enjoyment is losing themselves in a world they could never otherwise know…unless they have a Delorean.

  15. It has been said, Deb, that “when the student is ready, the teacher will appear.”
    Well, “Hello, Teacher.” I was thinking yesterday of how I send so much time looking for the “perfect” word on the first draft. The result is less words on the page and less pages written. This is another reason I miss our critique group. That was a deadline I had to make every two weeks. Deadlines I can keep.

    You and Dennis have repeated advised writers not to worry so much in the first draft, rather JUST WRITE. Then, edit and revise. I need to put those words on a poster above my computer.

    Just as you have the ghost of your eighth grade teacher, Mrs. Shore, whispering in your ear, I think my quest for perfection the first time out goes back to my days of working in the scientific field. If I got an experiment wrong the first time, I usually had the chance to redo the tests. But then, I could also blow myself and the lab up. That mindset tends to stick with a gal.

    Thanks for the great post. Got to go find some poster board.
    Stay safe, dear friend, and have a happy Thanksgiving.


    • Thanks, Deb! Glad you were a perfectionist in the lab–if you hadn’t been, we might never have met and that would be my big loss.

      Happy Thanksgiving to you, Nate, and the pups!

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