The Perfect Word – Eight Qualities to Look For

by Debbie Burke

@burke_writer

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.

Nope.

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?

Clue.

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.

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Color Cues

Nancy J. Cohen

I can see colors fine except when I have to write them in a story. Then I’ll say a character has brown eyes, is wearing a green top with khakis, and has her nails painted red. What is wrong with this picture? Rainbow colors don’t do justice to the myriad of shades out there. So how do you get more specific? Here are some helpful aids. Think in categories.

Jewels—pearl, amethyst, emerald, ruby, sapphire, jade
Flowers—rose, lilac, daffodil, lavender

Mizner4
Food—grape, cherry, orange, lemon, lime, cocoa, coffee, fudge, chocolate, blueberry, avocado, strawberry

P1010482 (800x600)

Minerals—onyx, copper, gold, silver, malachite, cobalt
Nature—slate gray like a thundercloud, leaf green, walnut, coal, ivory

anvil2

But sometimes my mind goes blank, and so I turn to the most creative resource of all—a department store catalog. You can’t get any more imaginative than this, whether it’s towels or tops or sweaters. Here are some descriptive colors from a recent newspaper insert:

Heather gray, apple green, aquatic blue, berry, coral, cornflower blue, charcoal, navy, banana, raspberry, tropical turquoise, sky blue, stone gray, violet, burgundy, claret, evergreen, marine teal, sand, ocean aqua, pewter, snow.

You get the idea. And so I’ve created a file listing descriptive adjectives under each basic rainbow color. Here is one example:

BROWN

chestnut, auburn, mahogany, walnut, hazel, fawn, copper, camel, caramel, cinnamon, russet, tawny, sand, chocolate, maroon, tan, bronze, coffee, rust, earth, dusty, mud, toffee, cocoa

Thus when I am stuck for a particular shade, I can hop over to my color chart and pick one out.

Colors descriptions also convey emotions. For example, mud brown, toad green, or cyanotic blue have a less pleasant connotation than chocolate brown, sea green or ocean blue. So choose your hues carefully to enhance a scene.

Beach

What’s your secret to describing colors?

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Don’t Belabor Your Prose

by Clare Langley-Hawthorne

Today, in honor of Labor Day, I wanted to cover something that has been bugging me all week. It began last Monday when I started a new book and within pages the prose was already starting to annoy me. The words, or at least the author’s choice of long, lugubrious, often archaic words were already getting in the way of the story – and I wasn’t even at Chapter 2!  As soon as I started to read I got the impression that the author was trying way too hard to impress the reader, rather than focusing on creating a compelling story. In some ways the writer was confusing style with content and in so doing, this reader at least, was no longer interested in reading. It had become too laborious. The words themselves had got in the way.

So why was this? I think in this instance it was the result of a naive writer hoping to show-off their linguistic prowess (or something like that – it felt like dictionary gymnastics at times!) and hoping perhaps that this somehow created an aura of literary validity (it didn’t!). What frustrated me the most was that the word choices detracted from what could have been a pretty strong start to a cozy mystery. It got me thinking about why – for someone like me who is drawn to perhaps the more wordy novels anyway (I love Dickens!) – was the prose was so off-putting? I decided it was simple – it was because it was unnecessary. And this at the heart of most things that go wrong with the start of a novel. Anything that feels unnecessary to the reader creates a barrier between them and the page. It stops them from wanting to keep turning that page. Instead, I like to think that a writer should go through a checklist, when reviewing their work, asking themselves a series of questions – something a little like this:

  1. Can I use a simpler word, phrase or description? When I substitute that, does it propel the story forward, or dilute it? (If it dilutes the power of what is being described or being said, then maybe the original word, phrase or description should stay).
  2. What is my reason for using a long/obscure word instead of a more straightforward one? Does it serve as mere affectation, or provide something more nuanced and appropriate in the circumstances? Am I using it because I think it makes me sound more erudite or because it’s the right word to use?
  3. Would most readers have to look the word up? (if so, why use it? It only stops a reader dead in their tracks).
  4. Does my writing sound like I just ingested a thesaurus? (If so, edit now!)
  5. When I read my writing aloud does it flow or do I find myself stumbling over the word choices I’ve made? (I find this an invaluable tool – because if I find myself tripping over the words I know I reader will find it hard to read the piece too).

Basically, don’t belabor your words. Let them flow, simply and easily. Readers will thank you.

So TKZers, tell, me what was the last book that you felt the author belabored their words? Any of your own advice to add to the checklist?

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Like, Ya Know?

by James Scott Bell


Words matter.

I am not a grammar snob or the vocabulary sheriff, but I do care about language because that’s what I use to tell a story or make a point. A culture needs both compelling tales and right reason. That’s why It’s important to educate the young about words lest the whole edifice of our human interactivity rot from the bottom up.

When a society’s stratum of inarticulate goofs expands, the ability to cohere as a people necessarily contracts. Eventually you’ll end up with competing tribes who only understand their own particular mode of grunting.

Our current trend line is not a happy one. High school dropouts of the 1950’s were better able to communicate than most college grads today. In fact, read the Civil War letters of soldiers. Written by farm boys in their teens and twenties, they are positively Shakespearean compared to today’s glut of emails and tweets. Don’t u agree?

Soggy language begets soggy thought. When that happens, emotion replaces reason as the sinew of communication (just watch the screaming-head opinion smack downs on TV, or any randomly selected brain softener tagged, euphemistically, a “reality show.”)

Words matter.

Disinterested does not mean uninterested.

“Begs the question” does not mean “Invites the question.”

And “ya know” does not add a convincing note to what you’re trying to say.

I invite you to listen to slam poet Taylor Mali on this topic. Then talk amongst yourselves: Do words still matter? Can language be saved?

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A boy and a dog

By Joe Moore

boy-dog I got an email the other day from a beginning writer who was working on her first book. She had read some of my novels and enjoyed them, and she asked if I had any advice on helping her strengthen her writing. I could have given her many answers to that question including creating an outline, researching carefully, developing strong characters, accuracy, compelling plot, etc. But what I decided to tell her was that the best way to strengthen her writing was to choose the right words.

I know that may sound almost too basic. After all, it doesn’t take a genius to figure out that the right words in the right order can make for good writing. But I suggested that once she completed her first draft and started the rewriting process, she spend time considering if she needed an alternative to her action and descriptive words. I’m not advocating a thesaurus-intensive approach to writing, just a conscious effort to consider if there’s a better, stronger, more visual alternative to power and descriptive words.

If you strip away all the words that you can’t change such as proper nouns, character’s names, conjunctions, prepositions, and other necessary parts of speech, what’s left are words that the writer can consider changing to strengthen the story.

And here lies the true craft of storytelling: choosing the right word.

Mark Twain once said, “The difference between the almost right word and the right word is like the difference between the lightning bug and the lightning.”

Choosing the right word helps create a stronger visual image in the reader’s mind that should closely resemble the image in the writer’s mind. And the closer those two visions synchronize, the more intimate, meaningful and thrilling the experience can be for the reader. The first words to fall target for change are descriptive words.

Here’s a short exercise in choosing the right descriptive words. It’s a one-sentence story I call A Boy and A Dog. As the writer, I see the action clearly in my mind, but do you see the same scene?

The dog ran toward the boy.

Pretty simple, right? Do you have a clear image of the dog? The boy? Do you see what’s happening with the action? Maybe, but there’s a great deal of room for interpretation. Our collective visions are not synchronized because the descriptive words—dog, ran, boy–are vague and general. Let’s try again.

The big dog ran toward the small boy.

Any better? Do you see the same dog and boy in your mind that I do? Are we talking about a poodle or a collie? Boxer or Doberman? Does small mean that the boy is short or young? Let’s revise.

The big black dog ran toward the small frightened child.

OK, now we’re using some better descriptive words. Are you starting to get the same picture in your mind that I am? Can you see the big black dog? Is it the same dog and child I envision as I write the story?

OK, let’s get serious about using descriptive words.

The pit bull charged the screaming toddler.

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Watch for Sunday guest blogs from Robert Liparulo, Julie Kramer, Anne Hawkins, and Grant Blackwood. And coming July 26. James Scott Bell joins the Kill Zone as our new fulltime Sunday blogger.

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