Right Word, Wrong Word . . . Right?

Some manuscripts/stories offer bare-bones details and descriptions.  That tends to lean toward flatness . . . a story that doesn’t have much oomph.  To be engaging, there should be a certain level of information that provides mental images/pictures that enable readers to envision what’s transpiring.  No, we don’t need to know every detail about a character or setting, but it helps if we have a decent sketch.

Using the right words—like adjectives and adverbs—helps with that sketch.  But, as we know, all things in moderation.  You don’t want to add so many that the manuscript/story has the opposite effect: instead of bare bones, there’s info overload.

    • Bare bones: “I see Mr. Montague was murdered with a knife,” Inspector Rawlins said, looking down at the body on the floor.
    • Too many bones: “I see poor Mr. Montague, the town’s banker, was brutally murdered with a boning knife comprised of 31 layers of chrome stainless steel, which clearly penetrated his frail heart,” Inspector Rawlins dramatically declared as he pointed a scarred finger at the crumpled body lying face-down on the red-and-green linoleum floor that had seen many decades pass.
    • Happy Medium: “I see Mr. Montague was murdered with a boning knife,” Inspector Rawlins said solemnly.  He scratched his stubbled chin as he studied the middle-aged banker lying face-down on the linoleum floor.

Speaking of bones, one bone of contention [debatable, of course] is word usage.  Some writers make verbs out of nouns, or vice versa.  Sometimes, it’s doable, given the action or dialogue.  Certainly characters—well defined ones <clearing of throat>—have accents, speech impediments, phrases/words that are central to them.  So, yes, words may be used incorrectly because that assists in painting a picture of a given character.  What doesn’t work?  Using words that aren’t right . . . as in incorrect.

This can happen when a writer decides to consult a thesaurus to replace a word but doesn’t consider the definition, or simply uses a word he/she thinks might work (or sound good).

Quick examples:

    • She looked at Lee.  “I won’t leave you, ever,” she intimated.
    • To intimate generally means to hint or imply or provide information indirectly.  It shouldn’t be used to make an outright statement.
    • Tom watched Marshall and Beatrice hurry to the cabin.  He wondered.
    • That’s wonderful that he wondered—but what about?  Some words require a little “wrapping” to make them complete.
    • The group departed, leaving them alone at the town’s edge.  She waved and mused, and headed back.
    • Maybe she mused about the group departing, maybe about being at the edge of town . . . maybe what she’d have for dinner.  Who knows?  Maybe that musing isn’t even central to the action or story—and if it’s not central, then don’t keep it.

A story should captivate the reader from the get-go.  Nothing new there.  Words paint pictures, create images, show what we can’t see . . . use them wisely . . . use them well.  😉

Which Word Works?

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.

Example:

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.

ClipartKeydotcomABCaIn 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.

What’s in a Word?

A lot.  Which takes us into a new post about editing, the first of several.

Too many words and you may lose your reader/viewer.  Too few words and writing may seem “static” (dull, stagnant, boring).  How you present ideas through written communication will be based on what you’re offering (fiction or nonfiction) and your audience (who you’re writing for).

Let’s begin with word usage.  Every word has its own nuance and merit.  Here’s a simple example:

  • Bradley said he’d start work on the project next week.
  • Bradley divulged he’d start work on the project next week.
  • Bradley declared he’d start work on the project next week.

The bolded words relate to a form of verbal communication, yet each offers a different spin.  The first one tells us Bradley spoke; the tone isn’t conveyed so maybe he’s sad, angry, or bored out of his mind.  (If we add an adverb—dully, excitedly, sleepily—we have a better idea of what good ol’ Bradley is thinking or feeling.)  The second one suggests something secretive had been going on and our buddy has finally revealed this.  In the third example, Bradley Boy is stating something emphatically—i.e. making an official announcement.

Maybe you’re just starting out as a writer/blogger and you’re still getting a feel for your “voice”.  That’s fine.  It takes time to hone skills, just as it takes time to refine writing.

I love a good thesaurus, but years as a writer and editor have taught me to use it judiciously.  Feel free to utilize one and give thought to the following: 

Tip #1: Don’t throw in synonyms willy-nilly just to “jazz up” your post or writing (you may inadvertently “jam up”).   Tip #2:  Make certain that the synonym is appropriate; check the definition, even if the word is familiar.  Tip #3:  Ensure the synonym is recognizable and applicable to your audience.

Use the right words to correctly convey the message.  Write and edit (polish) accordingly.  Sure, it takes extra time: consider it an investment.  Clear and concise writing sells [much] better than that which is garbled and long-winded.  Trust me on this one—been there, done that (many a time).  Lesson [happily] learned.

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