This week I felt compelled to review word usage in fiction writing (or any writing, for that matter). The right word conveys the right emotion, message, action.
New writers sometimes feel a need to use words or phrases (and I’ve been there, I readily admit) to impress, or seem more “worldly” perhaps. Occasionally, when editing, I come across ones that I’ve never seen before! Wow, how impressive indeed—into the dictionary I delve!
Don’t aim for impressive; go for impression, the [desired] effect you produce in the mind of your readers.
At times, the selected word works, at times, not. So, why was it chosen? Because it sounded good? Not a valid reason, my friends. Because it’s popular? Not a valid reason, my friends. Because you really want to demonstrate how grand your vocabulary is? Not a valid reason, my friends.
Upon hearing the news of her death, sadness flowed through him.
Upon hearing the news of her death, ruefulness flowed through him.
Upon hearing the news of her death, dispiritedness flowed through him.
Upon hearing the news of her death, forlornness flowed through him.
The bolded words share a similar meaning (to a degree) yet are not the same.
sadness: causing, showing or expressing unhappiness or sorrow
ruefulness: causing, showing or expressing unhappiness or regret
dispiritedness: a feeling of low spirits
forlornness: sad or lonely, chiefly from being abandoned or forsaken
Utilize the word the best works for the dialogue, action, scene—and not because a “bigger” word seems “better”. Ensure the word or phrase is appropriate to the circumstance(s). And if you want to use a new word, go for it, but check the definition. Is it accurate for what is being written/conveyed? Remember: the dictionary is our friend.
They say short and sweet is best, and that can hold true for words. Sometimes, the clearest, most persuasive word is the shortest one.
And, if you’re writing a historical novel, think about how your characters speak—modern-day phrases and expressions really don’t have a place here, unless time travel is involved.
The same holds true of speech/dialogue. Someone of royal blood or a person in a governmental position would not likely use “gonna” or “wanna”; he or she would speak with more precision and professionalism. Moreover, characters—like everyday persons—would speak differently and employ unique phrases or expressions. Contractions may or may not be used, given who the person is and where he or she hails from.
The minister looked as his assistant. “Bro, like I was tellin’ ya, I was wondering if we’re gonna like the proposals Major Martyn will propose, ya know? I heard he’s kinda odd when it comes to—”
“No worries, sir, I’m sure you’re gonna like them just fine,” his assistant said.
How about something like:
The minister regarded Lester, his assistant, closely. “I wonder if Major Martyn’s proposals will be practical. I’ve heard he’s rather odd when it comes to—”
“No worries, sir,” Lester interrupted with an amiable smile. “I’m sure you’ll find them appropriate.”
Incorrect word choices (or arrangements) can result in clumsiness, vagueness, and/or ambiguity.
Example of incorrect word usage:
“George, from here on in we will live our life together, don’t you think that’s awesome? We can rely on each other, my honey-bun,” Margaret derailed George’s train of thought, like she knew precisely what he was so totally enthralled with.
Example of better word usage:
With a patient smile, Margaret derailed George’s train of thought. “Going forward we’ll live our lives together. We’ll have each other to rely on. That’s amazing, don’t you agree?”
Avoid misusing words; again, check the definition if you’re not quite sure. Make certain the context is correct.
Keep an eye on jargon, too. It may work for a character or two, but it may not for others, and it may not work in descriptive sections. Clichés can be appealing, at times, in the right situations, but they can also prove trite if not silly, so use them wisely.
Say what needs saying, and don’t “over-stuff”; you only need so many feathers for a comfy cushion. Wordiness, unlike a dictionary, is not our friend.
In summation: ♦ be careful when utilizing a word that’s unfamiliar ♦ use a dictionary if you use a thesaurus, to be certain the new word you want to use is the right one ♦ do not write to impress or sound like you know it all ♦ watch for repetition (have you used the same word/phrase too many times?).
Reading aloud helps . . . really. Try it. See if it doesn’t help you with your word selection. If something doesn’t sound good to your ears, it probably needs reworking.
This could easily be a five-page post because there’s so much to advise re word usage, but no one wants to plow through a lonnnnnnnnnnnnnng post, so here you have the main food-for-thought points. I hope they help.
On that note, I bid you a short and simple adieu.