25 TIPS you need to know about Word Choice
Here’s why this matters: because both writing and storytelling comprise, at the most basic level, a series of word choices. Words are the building blocks of what we do. They are the atoms of our elements. They are the eggs in our omelets. They are the shots of liquor in our cocktails. Get it right? Serendipity. Get it wrong? The air turns to arsenic, that cocktail makes you puke, this omelet tastes like balls.
Words are like LEGO bricks: the more we add, the more we define the reality of our playset. “The dog fucked the chicken” tells us something. “The Great Dane fucked the chicken” tells us more. “The Great Dane fucked the bucket of fried chicken on the roof of Old Man Dongweather’s barn, barking with every thrust” goes the distance and defines reality in a host of ways (most of them rather unpleasant). You can over-define. Too many words spoil the soup. Find the balance between clarity, elegance, and evocation.
You know that game — “Oh, you’re cold, colder, colder — oh! Now you’re getting hot! Hotter! Hotter still! Sizzling! Yay, you found the blueberry muffin I hid under the radiator two weeks ago!” –? Word choice is like a textual version of that game where you try to bring the reader closer to understanding the story you’re trying to tell. Strong, solid word choice allows us to strive for clarity (hotter) and avoid confusion (colder).
Think of it like a different game, perhaps: you’re trying to say as much as possible with as few words as you can muster. Big ideas put as briefly as you are able. Maximum clarity with minimum words.
Finding the perfect word is as likely as finding a downy-soft unicorn with a pearlescent horn riding a skateboard made from the bones of your many enemies. Get shut of this notion. The perfect is the enemy of the good. For every sentence and every story you have a plethora of right words. Find a good word. Seek astrong word. But the hunt for a perfect word will drive you into a wide-eyed froth. Though, according to scholars, “nipplecookie” is in fact the perfect word. That’s why Chaucer used it so often. Truth.
For every right word, you have an infinity of wrong ones.
You might use a word that either oversteps or fails to meet the idea you hope to present. A word in that instance would be considered awkward. “That dinner fornicated in his mouth” is certainly a statement, and while it’s perhaps not a technically incorrect metaphor, it’s just plain goofy (and uh, kinda gross). You mean that the flavors fornicated, or more likely that the flavors of the meal were sensual, or that they inspired lewd or libidinous thoughts. (To which I might suggest you stop French-kissing that forkful of short ribs, pervhouse.) To go with the food metaphor for a moment (“meat-a-phor?”), you ever take a bite of food and, after it’s already in your mouth, discover something in there that’s texturally off? Bit of gristle, stem, bone, eyeball, fingernail, whatever? The way you’re forced to pause the meal and decipher the texture with your mouth is the same problem a reader will have with awkward word choice. It obfuscates meaning and forces the reader to try to figure out just what the fuck you’re talking about.
Remember how I said earlier that words are like LEGO, blah blah blah help define reality yadda yadda poop noise? Right. Ambiguous word choice means you’re not defining reality very well in your prose. “Bob ate lunch. It was good. Then he did something.” Lunch? Good? Something? Way to wow ‘em with your word choice, T.S. Eliot. To repeat: aim for words that are strong, confident, and above all else, clarifying.
Incorrect word choice means you’re using the wrong damn word. As that character says in that movie, “I do not think it means what you think it means.” Affect, effect. Comprise, compose. Sensual, sensuous. Elicit, illicit. Eminent, immanent, imminent. Allude, elude. Must I continue? Related: if you write “loose” instead of “lose,” I cannot be held accountable if I kick you so hard in your butthole you choke on a hemorrhoid.
Point of fact: the English language was invented by a time-traveling spam-bot who was trapped in a cave with a crazy monk. Example: The word “umbrage” means “offense,” so, to take umbrage means to take offense. Ah, but it also means the shade or protection afforded by trees. I used to take the second definition and assume it carried over to the people portion of that definition. Thus, to “take umbrage” meant in a way to “take shelter” with a person, as in, to both be under the same shadow of the same tree. I used the word incorrectly for years like some shithead. If you’re uncertain about the use of any word, it’s easy enough to either not use it or use Google to define it (“define: [word]” is the search you need). Do not trust that the English language makes sense or that your recollection of its madness is pristine. It will bite you every time.
This is not a hard or fast rule (hell, none of this is), but in my highly-esteemed opinion (translation:debatable bullshit mumbled by a guy who thinks “cock-waffle” should be a part of our collective daily vocabulary), you don’t need — or want! — to refine your word choice in the first draft. That initial draft is, for me, a screaming weeping blubberfest where I just want to cry all the words out without any care in the world how they get onto the page. Second and subsequent drafts, however, are a good time to zero in on problems big and small. Don’t spend your first draft scrutinizing word choice.
For every action you’ll find a dozen or more verb-flavors of that action. You can drink your coffee or you can gulp, sip, guzzle, or inhale it. You can run down the street or you can jog, bolt, sprint, dash, saunter, or hotfoot it. You can have sex with someone or you can fuck ‘em, hump ‘em, make love to ‘em, or ride ‘em like Seabiscuit in a gimp mask. (Do they make gimp masks for horses? To the Googlemobile!) Use a strong verb that clarifies the action and makes sense in the context of the scene. A hostage escaping his kidnappers isn’t going to scamper away — he’s going to barrel, hurtle, bolt, or if you’re a fan of not-fixing-what-ain’t-broke, he’ll run like a motherfucker. If the base-level verb gives you maximum potency and clarity, then use it.
Mmmyeah, one caveat to the “strong clarifying verb” thing — it doesn’t apply to dialogue tags. No, no. Don’t resist. Hold still. Stop trying to chew through the duct tape. I know you want to your characters to yelp, blurt, scream, gibber, shriek, murmur, mumble, babble, explain, exhort, plead, interrupt, erupt, exclaim, and ejaculate constantly, but don’t do it. Do. Not. Do. It. Rely on “say/said” 80-90% of the time. You can, when seeking variety and clarification of action, use another dialogue tag.
Am. Is. Was. To Be. Will Be. Whatever. I’m not one of those who will tell you to cut out every instance of the verb “to be” in all its simple-headed forms because sometimes, simplicity is best. And yet, overuse of that verb may weaken your writing. Look for instances where the verb can be replaced by a stronger one or where it adds needless roughage to a sentence. “Barry is playing with himself in the corner” is better as “Barry plays with himself in the corner.” If you say, “It is my opinion that Rush Limbaugh should be stuffed with dynamite and exploded like a beached whale,” you’d be better off with, “I believe Rush Limbaugh…” instead. Oh, and if a sentence starts with “there is” or “it was,” you should attack that sentence with lasers.
No, really. Try it, I’ll wait. … Are you done yet? Specificity. Specificity. Spehhh-siiiihh-fiiiihh-sihhhh-teeee. Anyway. Moving on. Words help us define reality — nouns doubly so. Creature? Animal? Mammal? Cat? Panther? Housecat? Tomcat? Russian Blue? The North Canadian Spangled Bobtail? There I charted specificity to the point where it became useful and then crossed over into absurd bullshit. If I tell the reader that the cat is a “housecat,” we all get it. But if I say that the cat is a “Lambkin dwarf cat,” only a handful of cat geeks are ever going to grok my lingo. Aim for specific, but realize you can get too specific.
Sometimes, a verb or noun just doesn’t tell the whole tale. I can say “housecat,” but I mean, “calico kitty with a sprightly attitude and a penchant for meowing loudly.” Calico. Sprightly. Loudly. These all modify the verbs and nouns present in order to paint a picture. Adverbs and adjectives provide both a deeper sense of specificity while also providing flavor or color to the world. They’re a strong spice. Use when you need, not when you want. Say what you mean and no more.
Writers often bandy about that old crunchy nugget of of penmonkey wisdom — NO ADVERBS — as if it is bulletproof. As if a gang of adverbs shanked that writer’s mother in the kidneys as she stooped over to water the hydrangeas. Adverbs are not birthed from the Devil’s hell-womb. They’re just words. Did you know that “never” is an adverb? As is “here?” And “tomorrow?” You can rely too heavily on adverbs (and amateurish writers do). You can also use adverbs that are unnecessary or that sound clunky when staple-gunned to the end of a sentence. And adverbs paired with dialogue tags will often chafe one’s taint, but that doesn’t mean you need to hunt down every last adverb with a spear-gun.
The thesaurus is not a bad book (or, these days, website). I love the thesaurus because I have a brain like a rust-eaten bucket — shit slips through all the time. I’m constantly snapping my fingers saying, “There’s a word that’s like this other word but not quite and OH SHITDAMNIT I CAN’T REMEMBER IT WHO AM I AND WHY AM I WEARING LADIES’ UNDERWEAR?” So, I turn to the thesaurus not to look for a better, fancier word but instead to find the word my feeble mouse-eaten brain cannot properly recall. It is not the thesaurus that is the root of all evil but rather the love of the thesaurus that urges writers to commit the sin of pompous word choice. It is not a crutch; do not lean upon it.
Smaller words are nearly always better than big ones. Big words put distance between you and the reader. Each added syllable is a speed-bump. Don’t use word choice to sound smart. Don’t talk circles around the reader. Your job is communication. Is your story a bridge between you and the reader — or is it a wall?
Jargon is when you rely on technical or area-specific terminology to get across your point. Jargon uses a limited vocabulary to speak to a small circle of people, and this is true whether you’re talking about some aspect specific to knight’s armor, a scientific theory, or the manufacture of space-age dildo technology. The test is easy. Ask yourself, will most people know what the fuck I’m talking about? If yes, carry on. If no, either use plain-spoken language or take the time to explain that shit you just slung into my eyes.
Certainly you have some leeway in terms of choosing the correct words for your expected audience. If you’re writing a novel about baseball, nobody would fault you for using a metric crap-sack of baseball terminology. You’ll certainly write different prose if you expect your audience to comprise plumbers instead of an aristocrats. Still, you’ll find value in reading to be read widely, not just by a subset of potential readers.
I’ll admit it: I love junk words. They are the greasy hamburger of prose, delicious to me and plump with empty calories. Effectively! In theory! Very! Happen to! Point is! You know? They offer minimal — if any! — functionality. Hunt them down with merciless abandon. Stomp them with cleated shoe until they squeal.
The repetition of one or several words can have a potent effect — but what happens a lot of time is, you repeat words accidentally. “The day was hot and heat vapors rose off the ground. The heat sapped Quinn’s energy.” Hot, heat, heat. A reader will trip on such repetition. And then he’ll fall down some steps and break his coccyx. Man, “coccyx” sounds like some kind of dinosaur bird, doesn’t it? THE MIGHTY COCCYX SWOOPS TO FEAST ON THE BABY TURTLEBUGS. I dunno. Shut up. Don’t judge me.
Words play off other words. Together they form rhythm. Choose words that pair well together, like red wine and steak. Or Pabst Blue Ribbon and hipster shame. Or heroin and delicious urinal cakes. Shakespeare knew that rhythm mattered and so chose words that slotted into iambic pentameter. The way you hear the rhythm of the words is to read your work aloud. Do that and you’ll find the flow — or, more importantly, find what’s damming the flow so you can fix it with proper word choice and sentence construction.
Consider word choice to be a test posited by the audience. Make errors (lose/loose), they will see you for the rube you are. Write by relying on big words, heavy jargon and purple prose and they will see you as sticking your literary nose in the air. The result is the same: they will close the book and then beat you to death with it. They are also likely to violate your pallid carcass with various kitchen implements.
Write to be read. Choose words that have flavor but do not overwhelm, that reach out instead of pushing back, that sound right to the ear and carry with them a kind of rhythm. Write with confidence, not with arrogance. Don’t be afraid to play with words. But be sure to let the reader play with you.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Chuck Wendig is equal parts novelist, screenwriter, and game designer. He is the author of the novels DOUBLE DEAD, BLACKBIRDS, and MOCKINGBIRD. In addition, he’s got a metric boatload of writing-related e-books available, including the popular 500 WAYS TO BE A BETTER WRITER. He currently lives in the wilds of Pennsyltucky with wife, dog, and newborn progeny.
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