Wednesday, March 21, 2012

The Right Word

My junior high students and I were studying IMAGINARY MENAGERIE, which is a collection of awesome poems about fantastic creatures by Julie Larios.

Go buy this book.
Each of Julie's poems in IMAGINARY MENAGERIE is named after the creature that inspired it. We went through them and underlined words we liked, like in "Dragon": air, bright, wild, arrow, sings

Then we decided we would each write a short poem based on an animal. The first step was to come up with a list of words that fit that animal. For an example, I wrote the word "whale" on the board and asked the students to brainstorm.

For the first few minutes, the suggestions went something like this: "Tail!" "Pail!" "Frail!" "Stale!" "Male!" "Snail!" "Hail!"

None of those words are remotely "whale." Except maybe "tail." Whales have tails. Congratulations, you've passed the seventh grade.

Now, this is not a slight against my junior high students, who are all brilliant and charming. It's about how we think about words (and poetry, which is a whole other can of worms). But the good news is, just as I was beginning to despair, there was a marked lull in the suggestion-shouting, and after a moment, one girl said, ". . . Bubbles."


Roundish but not round. Gentle. A little unwieldy. Sounds like it's underwater.

"Bubbles" is a whale word.

Use the Words You Need

A lot of the craft of writing is finding the right words. Anyone with a dictionary can figure out what a word means, and it's usually pretty apparent what a word connotes, but what is it that makes a word right?

Agents and publishers today frequently favor simplification -- or, at least, it appears that way in their advice to prospective clients. Don't over-write. Just tell the story. Two legs Adverbs bad, four legs verbs good. But their actual client lists often boast a wide variety of voices and styles, some of which are Hemingway-spare, some of which are downright flowery. So what's the deal?

Let's look at two writers with different voices, who happen to be two of my very favorite writers -- Diana Wynne Jones and Frances Hardinge.

"She was a small, unlovely woman in glasses, with a figure like a sack of straw with a string tied round it. And she danced. She bent her knees, she hopped, she cavorted. Her ragbag skirt swirled, her untidy hair flew and her spectacles slid on her barely-existent nose."

There are no extra words here; every one is pulling its weight. This is the first time we meet the (wonderful) heroine of this novel, and the picture is vivid and full of movement. If I highlighted all the words I loved in these four sentences, there would be barely any left.

"Around and through the village, water seethed down the breakneck hillside in a thousand winding streamlets. They hissed and gleamed through dark miles of pine forest above the village, chafing the white rocks and learning a strange milkiness. Chough itself was more a tumble than a town, the houses scattered down the incline as if stranded there after a violent flood."

This paragraph is also about movement, but the voice is very different. The sentences flow and turn like the water around Chough. But here, too, the words do their work efficiently -- because they're the right words. A streamlet hissing and gleaming is not the same as a streamlet frothing and shining, or bubbling and glistening, and hissing and gleaming is what Hardinge wants. So even though her style may seem slightly more elaborate than Jones's, she's not using any extra words, either.

So maybe "simplification" has nothing to do with the flavor of your voice. It's about using exactly the words you need, and using them deliberately. Another step towards the reader's immersion in the world rather than the text.

That said, are there words that are almost always "right" or "wrong," regardless of voice?

Right Words

Some words, according to me, are almost always right. These include:

Said (and asked). When I see these in classrooms, it makes me want to gouge my own eyes out with a red pen. If it is necessary for you to indicate that your character "screamed" or "nagged" or "purred" in order for the reader to visualize the dialogue the way you intend, you have not been doing your job in the rest of the scene. Dialogue tags should be largely invisible; they should indicate who spoke. Context, in most cases, should do the rest.

As for unnecessary "said/asked" synonyms -- unless you are contacting an agent about your novel, no one is "querying." So cut it out.

Colors and shapes. You might be more of an "azure" or more of a "bright blue." You might be a "sphere" or a "ball." But color and shape words turn your characters and settings into clear pictures. All sensory details do, including sounds, smells, and textures.

Verbs. Stories are about things that happen. Verbs indicate things are happening. Look at all the verbs in the two sample paragraphs above -- they are awesome!

Nouns. Nouns are things that do things, or things that stories are about. Yay! The more specific, the better. Instead of "car," say "Yugo" or "vicious Ford sedan" or "Popemobile."

Wrong Words

I wouldn't call any word universally "wrong," but there are a few that make me raise an eyebrow and re-evaluate what's going on in the nuts and bolts of my narrative. Here's my $0.02, because, you know, science. Or something.

Was (followed by an emotion). Your protagonist is skipping down the sidewalk singing showtunes? We know he is happy. Your protagonist's beloved dog just got flattened by a steamroller? We know she is sad. (Also, I have thrown your book into the lake.)

If you have to tell us your character is sad/happy/angry, either you have not been doing your job, or you think we are stupid.

Adverbs. OK, so I use adverbs. It's true. And I'm not on an anti-adverb crusade like some of the more militant elements in the writing community. But I think the point of the adverb-hate sweeping our nation is that in many cases, it's the verb that should be doing the work. If you have to tell us how someone is running, for instance, maybe "running" isn't the right word. Maybe you mean loping or sprinting or scampering or galloping.

To me, finding an adverb in my writing is not necessarily an instant delete moment -- it's more of a red flag indicating that maybe other words aren't pulling their weight.

Was (followed by a preposition). As with adverbs, this is more of a "check out this spot" indicator. I find that the "to be" verb in "was [preposition]" can often be replaced by a more interesting verb, adjective, metaphor, etc. For example, "The house was at the end of the street" could become "The house lurked at the end of the street" or "The house was perched at the end of the street." It's an opportunity to paint a more vivid picture.

Walked. Yes, people walk all the time. It's probably our favorite thing to do as a species after sleeping and sitting on our fesses. But "walk" is one of those words that has such a broad definition, I find it's almost always better to replace it with something more specific to the situation (or you may find yourself sticking an adverb after it!).

Finding the Right Word

Some friends and I were arguing recently about the word "decimate." They believe it should be used only as it was originally intended -- to mean the slaughter of one in ten soldiers by their own leaders. For other scenarios, one of them suggested we simply replace "decimate" with "annihilate." Sure enough, "annihilate" is the first synonym of "decimate" listed in the online thesaurus.

But here's where the idea of a "right" word comes into play. As a writer, would you use these words interchangeably? Here's "decimate," in my head:

And here's "annihilate":

Those are just the images my brain, cultivated by immersion in the living language, responds with. But there's more: Which word is more devastating? Which is more powerful? Which is a better length for the sentence I'm writing? Which is funnier? Which feels more like it belongs in the world I'm creating with my narrative? Any or all of these questions could influence which -- if either -- of these two words I choose to use.

I use my thesaurus a lot. Not because I'm looking for a fancier way of saying something, but because, even though there are many supposed synonyms in the English language, there's often only one word that really means what you want to say.

Take the word "vicious." Here are the entries under "vicious" in my thesaurus: brutal, ferocious, dangerous, violent, savage, remorseless, ruthless, merciless, heartless, callous, cruel, harsh, cold-blooded, inhuman, fierce, barbarous, barbaric, brutish, bloodthirsty, fiendish, sadistic, monstrous, murderous, and homicidal. 

Now go through the list and think about the feel of each of these words. None of these words are perfect synonyms for "vicious." It's not about what Merriam-Webster tells us, it's about a hundred little facets of experience, aesthetics, culture, and connotation that color our perception of each word. Some words are bloody, ripping-apart, madness words -- ferocious, brutal, savage, murderous. Some have a literary detachment, safe for sensitive audiences -- violent, dangerous, cruel. Some are cold and calculating -- ruthless, callous, merciless. Some are twisted and purposeful -- bloodthirsty, fiendish, sadistic. And within these categorizations, each word has its own sound, flavor, and shape.

So do fiction writers need to take the same care as poets when choosing words?

How about yes?

What do you think?


  1. Words are a wonder. Thanks, Adi, good post.

  2. Adi, this is such a well-thought-out post. I loved reading it, and I agree with all you've said. Right word, right order - that's the job, and even though it sounds simple (four little words, after all) that advice isn't easy to follow. If it were, would writing be as wonderful or reading be as wonder-inducing?) Thanks for using my book as the springboard, and congratulations to your students for entering into the delicious world of choosing just the right word. Especially BUBBLES, which is definitely whale-worthy!

  3. I once used the word "acquiesced." As in, " 'Yes,' he acquiesced." My friend accused me of inventing a word, which was when I realized that was not a good word to use ever. Except in Pirates of the Caribbean.

  4. OK, NOWWWWW I get what we were discussing on the way to Symphony! :) And yes, you are absolutely right. In my mind, there is no difference between poetry and prose when it comes to word-choosing. They must be done in an equally deliberate manner. And yes, annihilate and decimate are two distinct things.... wonder if James Joyce ever used them?

  5. Ha, this post was like Creative Writing 101 xD Well, I can tell you're a middle school teacher :) That was a precious little anecdote, by the way. Silly, adorable little kiddies!