Finding Those Laser Beam Words

“When I read, I notice with pleasure when an author has chosen a particular word…for the picture it will convey to the reader.”―Ruth Bader Ginsburg

By PJ Parrish

The older I get, the more words fail me. This is a common ailment, I realize, but that’s cold comfort. What’s worse, there’s no logic to these lapses. I can sing all four verses of the theme song from The Patty Duke Show. But “thing” has now become my go-to noun in daily life — as in when I asked the husband to hand me “that thing over there” so I could change the channel on the TV.

You’d think that, as a writer, I’d be used to this. Not being able to claw up the right word from the morass of our memory is just normal for us, right? It’s part of the torture of our creative process. I’m telling you, crime dogs, this doesn’t get easier with age.

I’m judging a contest right now for a writer’s conference. The entries range from derivative to really delightful. What separates the standouts from the pack is not a matter of just plot and character or mastery of craft. Sometimes it is coming down to something as “small” as word choices. There is nothing better, as the late justice said, than to come across a phrase or sentence that is so striking and original, that you pause in your reading to savor it.

As a writer, when you hit upon just the right word, your sentences and scenes take on a vibrancy and alive-ness. The right word, phrase, metaphor, has a magical power to instantly connect with a reader, making them go “Yes! I know exactly how that feels!”

When you settle for the merely adequate word, your story becomes mundane and bloodless.

Look at these lovelies:

Ray Bradbury in Fahrenheit 451 describing the “beauty” of the pages of a book being burned: “Each becomes a black butterfly.”

John LeCarre in The Spy Who Came In From The Cold describing torture: “The pain just increases like a violinist going up the E string. You think it can’t get any higher and it does–the pain’s like that, it rises and rises.”

Does it give you, as a writer, any comfort to know that all writers struggle with this? It helps me. It’s just one more thing we have to worry about as we move through our stories, trying to keep all the pie plates spinning.

Gustave Flaubert was tortured by his quest for le bon mot, as he lamented in a letter to Guy de Maupassant:

Whatever you want to say, there is only one word that will express it, one verb to make it move, one adjective to qualify it. You must seek that word, that verb, that adjective, and never be satisfied with approximations, never resort to tricks, even clever ones, or to verbal pirouettes to escape the difficulty.

Well, I don’t know if this will make your trials any easier, but here are a couple things I’ve found useful to keep in mind as you struggle for the right words.

Keep word choice true to the characters background and age. Streetwise characters in a PI novel have their own jargon. Ditto the hero of a historical regency romance. Country folks speak a different vocabulary than city swells.  Nothing will yank a reader out of your story faster than ill-fitting words coming from your characters mouths or brains.

Be a good listener. We’re always saying here at TKZ that you must be a great observer of human behavior to write well. So must you be a great listener. Now, in daily life, people talk in cliches, banalities and tried metaphors. If you ever use one of these…

  • play your cards right
  • bring to the table
  • low-hanging fruit
  • it’s an uphill battle
  • bite the bullet
  • nerves of steel
  • weak as a kitten

…I will hunt you down. You can take that to the bank. But listening to people talk gives you a good grounding by which to fashion unique character voices. Everyone on earth has their own music. It’s your job to hear each note.

Be aware of your tone. Humor demands a different vocabulary than hardboiled. The word choices you make for mystery set in the Civil War South are going to be more specific and regimented than those for a dystopian fantasy wherein you are free to invent words and phrases. (See below!)

Beware the Thesaurus. I know, I know…it is useful but it can be a dangerous crutch. If you are overly reliant on standard synonyms, your brain will never become muscular enough to come up with something truly original to your own voice.

Okay, okay, if you’re really constipated you can take a dose of Thesaurus. Sometimes just looking a list of almost-right words can free up the juices. Just be careful that you’re not so desperate that you fall for the first pretty synonym that comes along. Here’s a really fun site for word shopping: (Enter your word in the box but don’t hit enter; hit Related Words)

Don’t gild every word. Sometimes, “He walked into the room” does the trick. It’s usually not “a verdant swath of fescue,” it’s just “grass.”  Pick your places to punch things up and don’t overdo it because you’ll just end up looking silly. Don’t get addicted to metaphors. As Florence King said, writers who have nothing to say always strain for metaphors to say it in.

Likewise, be aware of the moment. This is a problem I’m finding with some of the entries I am judging — the writers over-describe or strain for originality when the context/situation calls for tightness, simplicity, or specificity. This is especially true in their action scenes. The tenser the moment, the simpler the writing, I say. Do you write this?

Frank reached a trembling hand into his holster and pulled out his blue-black Glock 22,, grimacing as the hulk of his would-be assassin emerged from the shadows, lit for only a second by the red reflection of a nearby neon sign. He fired the gun, blinded for a moment by the muzzle-fire, then blinked the scene back just in time to see the large man fall forward, face first, down onto the wet street.

Or something like this?

Frank jerked out his gun, squinting to see the man in the dark alley. A second of neon throbbing on the man’s gun was enough to get off one bullet.  The man fell to the asphalt, his gun skittering into the shadows.

With this example, I cut all extraneous words to keep things moving fast. I purposely left out some things to leave room for imagination. And I tried to find the right word(s) — jerked, squinting, skittering, neon throb.

Don’t sweat it on the first draft. Sometimes, you just can’t find the word. You’re in the ballpark, but it’s not a home run. You’re sorta, kinda, just about, not far from, close to, nearly, more or less…almost there! But nothing comes. Don’t do what I often do — sit there, staring at the screen, brain in knots, paralyzed by the perfection police. PUT ANY WORD IN THERE AND MOVE ON. Believe me, the word will be there in the next draft. Or in the middle of the night.

Have fun. Don’t be afraid to make up words or use them weirdly. Now, this comes with a big caveat because you can end up looking like pretentious fool. But every once in a while, you can get away with this. I didn’t know this until I did some research, but there’s a fancy (specific!) word for this: anthimeria  It means subbing one word for another, usually a noun for a verb. “Chill” was originally a synonym noun for “cold” but has morphed into a verb meaning to relax. After Clint Eastwood gave his famous speech at the 2012 Republican National Convention, “Eastwooding” meant talking to an empty chair. Thankfully, this one didn’t catch on.  Here are a couple of good examples:

I’ve often got the kid in my mind’s eye. She’s a dolichocephalic Trachtenberg, with her daddy’s narrow face and Jesusy look. — Saul Bellow in More Die of Heartbreak.

Until then, I’d never liked petunias, their heavy stems, the peculiar spittooning sound of their name. –Kate Daniels in In the Marvelous Dimension.

You keep lyin’ when you oughta be truthin’ — Nancy Sinatra, These Boots Are Made For Walking.

I unwittingly committed anthimeria at pickleball once when I joked to a female opponent after she fired off a nasty shot: “Stop mean-girling me.” It stuck, though we don’t have an equivalent for the guys.

Okay, go forward and find the right stuff. And relax! This is supposed to fun, right? As I often try to do, I leave you with some final words of inspiration. These come from the great American bard, Frankie Goes to Hollywood:

But shoot it in the right direction
Make making it your intention-ooh yeah
Live those dreams
Scheme those schemes
Got to hit me
Hit me
Hit me with those laser beam [words.]


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About PJ Parrish

PJ Parrish is the New York Times and USAToday bestseller author of the Louis Kincaid thrillers. Her books have won the Shamus, Anthony, International Thriller Award and been nominated for the Edgar. Visit her at

35 thoughts on “Finding Those Laser Beam Words

  1. I just spew onto the page when drafting but can usually pick out the hits and misses when revising. Sometimes I’m thinking “Oh! That’s really awesome!” when I read something I wrote and sometimes I look at my word choices and it’s “How pretentious! What was I thinking?” And sometimes it is a struggle to find the right word(s).

    As a bit of a side note, while reading this post this morning it reminded me how cool it is when you remember favorite lines from TV shows or movies. Who knows how many zillions of hours we spend consuming TV and movies in our lifetime, but out of those zillion hours, we remember a small fraction of the lines we hear because they were so good and so memorable. It’s very much like the satisfaction you get when you know you’ve made the right word choices in your story.

    • I’ve gotten better at spewing (good verb choice btw), but it’s hard for me to do. It’s really a better approach to writing, I think. But it’s hard to undo years of habits.

  2. This:
    Keep word choice true to the characters background and age. Streetwise characters in a PI novel have their own jargon. Ditto the hero of a historical regency romance. Country folks speak a different vocabulary than city swells. Nothing will yank a reader out of your story faster than ill-fitting words coming from your characters mouths or brains.

    • In my early writing days, I used to actually keep a notebook bedside. But too many mornings I woke to read gibberish. 🙂 Now, if it’s really something juicy, I force myself to get up and commit to the laptop. At least I can READ it at 7 am

  3. It’s usually not “a verdant swath of fescue,” it’s just “grass.”

    I’m printing this and tacking it to the bulletin board in my office.

    • Fescue is new to my vocabulary. Got it from watching British Open golf tournaments. Well, I didn’t watch them, the husband did. Good soft white noise for writing…

  4. Kris, great discussion. Reminds me of Mark Twain’s classic line: “The difference between the right word and the almost right word is the difference between lightning and a lightning bug.”

    A Greek friend once taught me how to make delicacies like spanikopita and bakllava. Each step took a lot of time, layering the papery phyllo dough w/o tearing it, brushing with melted sweet butter, sprinkling with fillings. Each spanikopita had to be folded flag-style, sealing the spinach and cheese inside, brushing with more melted butter, to form a triangle. The process was time-consuming and labor-intensive. One triangle took about five minutes to make…yet it only took the consumer five seconds to gobble.

    Sometimes finding the right word takes hours yet the reader gobbles it in seconds. I hope they savor the flaky layers, pleasing texture, and rich taste melting in their mouth.

  5. Thanks for the great discussion, Kris. I’m bookmarking the OneLook site.

    Another name for those nouns turned into verbs is “denominal verb.” It’s hard to find a noun that hasn’t been reimagined as a verb. I’m thinking about using that topic to have some fun with on a Reader Friday.

  6. This was great, Kris!

    I vow, right here and now, to limit my thesaurus time in favor of new ways to say what my character wants to say.

    One other thing (notice, I used “thing” . . . ):

    My current WIP has four children, ages 15, 12, 7, and 4. I worked very hard on their dialogue, remembering how my kiddos and grandkiddos talk to each other and to us…their “jargon”, if you will. I had to remember that their words today do not sound like mine in the sixties! My editor was quick to point out words that just aren’t used anymore.

    Carry on and have a great day. 🙂

    • I think kids’ voices are the hardest to get right. Not only because their jargon is unique to their eras but also because you have to narrow your parameters of word choice BUT at the same time leave room for children’s unique ways of looking at the world. Which as any parent knows, can mean some truly strange wordage!

  7. This was a fun post.

    I love it when I’m reading, and I come across a line that says what would usually take a whole paragraph to say. Then I pause and think, Wow, that’s poetry right there. (and I’m awful at poetry, BTW, so maybe it’s not poetry, but it feels that way to me)

    • I’ve seen some workshops that ask crime writers to get their juices going by trying to write a couple lines of poetry. I don’t have the knack, though my sister does. But I’m good at coming up with off-color limericks.

  8. Yes! Finding just the right word is like finding the pearl of great price. (Sorry for the metaphor – can’t help myself.) There is such joy in it.

    I confess to relying on the thesaurus to get me past those moments of word paralysis, but thanks for pointing out I tried it out on “perfection” and got hundreds of words. Wow.

    Also, thanks for the new word “anthimeria.” I’m chortling (thanks to Lewis Carroll) just thinking about it.

  9. The ideal for me is what the great John D. MacDonald described as “obtrusive poetry.” Not easy! Too much will lard down the story; not any turns it into Dutch furniture.

    But man, when it works, it’s heavenly. I think overwriting in the first draft is probably the best technique, because you can always cut and refine later. But you can’t edit what isn’t there.

  10. Finding the right word can be a real challenge for me as well, Kris. The struggle is real, as the internet saying went. I dip into “Roget’s Super Thesaurus” to try and find that right word when searching my brain fails to turn up the right word.

    “Hit me with those laser beams” indeed!

  11. Writer friends and I have come up with the term “whatchamacallit disease.” It’s particularly present when we spend so much of our time writing that our words settle into that part of the brain and refuse to appear in another part when we open our mouths. We would go out of our way to talk to people to reestablish the connection before conferences, etc., because those people wouldn’t forgive us for grunting and pointing like our family does.

    Then there’s the dreaded moment when you can’t remember a simple term like “rung” when your character is using a ladder. That’s why I love my visual dictionary, WHAT’S WHAT. I used it the other day for “ear canal.”

    • I find comfort in the fact that all my friends “of a certain age” can’t summon the proper words from their brains. It’s an ongoing joke. I was out gardening the other day and couldn’t think of the word for shovel. You know…that *thing* you dig dirt up with?

      • This reminds me of being in Monaco, and my daughter came back from the palace excited to tell me about “the stacks of these things, you know, the balls they shoot out of cannons!” I said, “Cannonballs?” She said, “Shut up.” She was 15, not 75. This has become family folklore.

        • LOL. Also reminds me of the great scene in “Throw Mama From the Train” where Billy Crystal is teaching a creative writing class and this woman is reading aloud her story set in a submarine. Her dialogue:

          “Dive! Dive!” yelled the captain through the thing.
          So the man who makes it dive pressed a button…or something. And it dove.”

  12. TThing
    Thingy is my go-to word. Love this post and like others am bookmarking the OneLook site. Often I’m not sure just what word I’m looking for, but I know it when I find it.

  13. I’ve visited this memory “thing” before, here (805 words): Therein, I compare the brain to a warehouse that fills up with memories and, naturally, requires more and more time for the little warehouseman to retrieve them. Elsewhere, in Does That Voice In Your Brain Bother You?, I compare the brain to a modem.

    Thanks for the OneLook link, PJ. Wow! You have created a Finkelstein! Having learnt furibundal, I must use it, and blame it on you. I have, indeed, written a dystopian novel and used the opportunity to develop a few new words, such as hoskaplop, in the local tongue, Deresthian.

    A secret: The ‘right’ word’s consonants often correspond with those around it, creating alliterative prose, a form of poetry.

    • One of the manuscripts in my contest is a futuristic dystopia story and the writer is very good at not just making up words but explaining them — translating as it were — for the reader without being pedantic. Normally, I don’t like future-set novels for this reason because the writers tend to get a tad show-offy in this regard. But this one is well done.

      • My dystopia takes place in a time of locomotives and steam cars, but not of this world. Horus Blassingame is from Londinium and speaks Anglic. I suspect hoskaplop will require no translation.

  14. Oh yes, what’s the proverb? “A word spoken at the right time is like gold apples on a silver tray”? I’m with you in always hunting for the exact right word. I’ve been reading Rosemary Sutcliff, a historical fiction author, and boy, did she have laser words. I’m trying to up my game. I recently had a story where the heroine exclaims, “Have you lost your mind?” and the villain replies, “No, I’ve lost my heart.”

  15. I thoroughly enjoyed this post, including the comments!
    Thank you for sharing a new term, “anthimeria,” but I must admit, I don’t know what I’d do without OneLook.
    I’ve used it for several months now, and it’s a life saver; not for finding a more grandiose word, but THE word, the escapee that gave me “brain cramp” (as my hubs and I call it) in the first place!
    I think I’ll start calling them “Flauberts” …but at my age I’ll likely forget his name as easily as anything else! Ha!

    I also deeply agree with you and Deb on the matter of “know your tone” and period-proper words. I watch a great many period dramas (because I’m a sucker for good costuming and watching people accurately use antique machinery), but there’s nothing worse than a turn-of-phrase used out of period!

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