5 Tips for Finding Exactly the Right Words
September 11, 2017
People think writing is easy, that finding the right words means nothing more than flipping through a thesaurus.
They fail to grasp how effectively the right words pull people in and how fiercely the wrong words repel.
Understanding what makes a word “right” is relatively easy. Whether you’re pushing a product or creating a world, words are your foot soldiers of persuasion, and, like people, the best words feel honest, authentic, and full of character. Anything less immediately alienates your audience by making your writing ring false, flimsy, or both.
Use these tips as you strive to find the right words while you write.
1. Look to the Roots
Nope, I’m not talking etymology here. The root of word choice is a deep understanding of the object, character, emotion, or what-have-you that you’re describing. Perfect words don’t appear unbidden from the ether.
Don’t understand your protagonist enough to know if they would smirk or grin? Spend more time developing the character in your mind. Struggling to decide whether the car you’re describing is agile or powerful? Research the car further. Unable to convey the value of an online course you developed? Reconsider exactly what makes your course stand out.
Lacking a firm handle on your subject inhibits even an encyclopaedic vocabulary from unearthing the right word.
2. Pre-Load Your Vocabulary
Words picked from a thesaurus stand out like a sore thumb. That’s because most people don’t know how to use a thesaurus.
Let’s say you want a synonym for “fast,” so you click through to thesaurus.com and pick out “brisk.” It might work, but it’s likely to feel clunky and forced. Organically selected words make writing flow naturally. Trust me, the word on the tip of your tongue is far superior to the word at the end of a Google search.
Leaning on the thesaurus whenever you falter produces stilted, inauthentic writing. So, play word games, read your heart out, or use word of the day toilet paper — whatever it takes to build up your vocabulary. Develop that semantic muscle memory, baby.
3. Embrace Surprise Over Synonyms
The best words seem to perfectly convey information while also achieving an element of surprise. Take this short snippet from Marilynne Robinson’s Housekeeping: “. . . the engine nosed over toward the lake and then the rest of the train slid after it into the water like a weasel sliding off a rock.”
I’ll stake my PayPal balance that never before was a train falling into a lake likened to a “weasel sliding off a rock,” but the description fits perfectly. Novelty arrests the attention. Your mind is forced to construct a totally new image. The line would be vastly less compelling if the train “plunged down into the water.”
Another scenario: my friend recently sent an email that described her “padding out of the bathroom.” The word “padding” instead of “walking” is a surprise, one that engages my attention and forces my brain to construct the unprecedented image. Powerful stuff.
Not every word must be profoundly creative, but you need to look beyond the synonym or stock-phrase for your writing to stand out.
4. Draw Out Emotions
Emotionally charged words arouse a reader’s interest and convey more information in a smaller package. “He walked forward,” for example, is pretty bland — consider it the beige option. But writing “He stomped forward” suggests anger and a lack of grace, while “He sauntered forward” could indicate ambivalence or confidence. You could write that a character “walked forward angrily,” but it’s more effective to combine the emotional state with the action. Words such as “stomped” and “sauntered” are more interesting, and they communicate more emotion with fewer words.
5. Be Specific
When all else fails, getting specific is where it’s at.
Let’s do a little side-by-side comparison:
- The cat walked across the floor.
- The old black cat walked across the wooden floor.
- Her mangy black tom crept across the splintery oak floor.
I’ll bet my insulin you prefer number three. Why? Because it’s more specific. The first line contains a non-descript feline and featureless flooring. A little focus leads to interesting words and greater depth. The floor became wood, and then it became splintery oak. My hypothetical cat became old, and then it became both male and mangy. The word “cat” itself became unnecessary. That third line sure isn’t Dickens, but it’s Dickens compared to line one.
Snagging the right word isn’t just about having plenty of them to call on. The right tools and techniques must grab hold, so make them second nature through ardent practice. You’ll sharpen your writing and ensnare your reader.