Mark Twain once said that the difference between the right word and the almost right word is the difference between the lightning and the lightning bug. Many writers since then have affirmed the truth of this observation, and just to give you a concrete idea of how this works, here are some of my own observations on word choice.
Demonstrate your expertise with language.
If grammar is not your “thing,” yet you aspire to be a writer, grammar must become your “thing.” Spell check and grammar check can only take you so far, and using “affect” when you should use “effect” is not likely to make a positive impression on the discerning reader (of which there are more than you might imagine).
Plus, if your characters only ever walk to the kitchen, and say things about the hot weather, and have a quick beef sandwich, I guarantee that they will never be as interesting as the characters who enter the kitchen, remark on the unusual heat, and consume a beef sandwich rapidly.
Use words appropriate to the mood.
I once read a story that followed the action-packed adventures of a well-trained underground agent. This very skilled man leaped into the back of a surveillance van to scan the cameras and then…
Steve fiddled with the tablet that controlled the cameras.
I’m sorry to say that my opinion of Steve’s skills dropped after I read that sentence. A better agent might have manipulated the controls, played them like a musician plays a piano, or tapped the screen authoritatively, but I assure you, he would have left the fiddling to his three-year-old.
If you’re in the mood for some hysterical examples of poor word choice, visit the Bad Analogies page (they’re clean, unless you count a little bathroom humor). Here’s one:
Her artistic sense was exquisitely refined, like someone who can tell butter from "I Can't Believe It's Not Butter."
A demonstration of the woman’s refined judgment is better found in her preference for gruyere cheese or her impeccable interior design than in comparisons about butter.
Balance your use of unusual words.
I once used the word “tergiversate” in a story, and when my friend sent back her evaluation of the story, she had highlighted the unusual word and added this comment: “Only you would know what that means. I’m going to find a dictionary.” Fortunately, my word-nerd friend is on good terms with her dictionary, but not all readers will be so forgiving.
On the other hand, unless you are writing for children, if you never use a word at the high school or college level, your readers may feel patronized or question your skill.
So here’s my solution: Every so often, introduce an unusual word with a context that hints at the meaning. For example, telling people that I’m a sesquipedalian results in polite but puzzled smiles. However, once I say, “I enjoy long words, so that makes me a sesquipedalian,” people chuckle and respond, “That’s so you!”
Examine your word choice and learn to craft phrases that will strike your reader like lightning bugs!
I mean lightning.
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