Searching for the Right Word? Tip #1


In this series of posts, I’m looking at how certain words can influence readers. Do you want to inspire with joy, encourage fear, romance with love, or does your story now need the reader to sink into despair along with your protagonist? This set of posts will look at ways of influencing mood by selecting the ‘right’ words for the job.

Where possible, I’ll present antonyms to offer contrasts in mood and tone, but bear in mind the subtleties of the English language mean these don’t always exist. If nothing else, I hope the series will increase used vocabulary and enhance our writing with words that more precisely reflect what we’re trying to convey to our readers.

  1. The idea of ‘up’.

‘Upness’, a word that doesn’t exist but a term that explains the idea of being ‘up’, takes up (a usage example) a good deal of space in the SOED, which is my go to dictionary. We all understand what it means to go up, feel up (ambiguity here, since in UK this is also a sexual euphemism), gee up, step up etc. However, suppose we’re writing a piece that needs to convey the idea that the protagonist is undergoing an uplifting experience. How best to attempt this?

“Listening to Elgar’s ‘Nimrod’ played on the organ of a crowded York Minster had raised up Cecily’s spirits, once the milling crowds had settled into silent listening.”

A couple of points, here: in combination with ‘raised’ the word ‘up’ becomes a tautology. Also, the sentence, whilst adequately constructed, is clumsy and not evocative. It describes the scene and tells us feelings of the subject without effecting any emotional response in the reader.

Let’s try again:

“Cecily had made a mistake by joining the crowds milling round York Minster. It was no way to find the spiritual lift she so desperately needed. But, when the organist released those first chords of Elgar’s ‘Nimrod’, the music silenced and stilled them all. She settled on a nearby seat and felt the melody flow through her being, drowning her recent loss, as she absorbed wonder and awe through the organist’s skill. A moment of precious silence after the trailing chord that followed the crescendo, allowed her to close her eyes and soar joyfully to a place of calm control. The crowds around her slowly gathered their reactions and commented on the magic. Elated by the powerful music, Cecily felt her whole body relax, knowing a door had finally opened into enjoyment.”

Perhaps more evocative?

The opposite of ‘up’ is ‘down’, of course.

“Listening to Elgar’s ‘Nimrod’ played on the organ of a crowded York Minster should have raised Cecily’s spirits, but the milling, unappreciative crowds had made her feel more down than ever.”

Not much evocation here either.

Let’s have another go:

“Cecily made the mistake of joining the crowds milling round York Minster. It was no way to find the spiritual lift she so desperately needed. The first chords of Elgar’s ‘Nimrod’ should have silenced and stilled the mob. She settled on a nearby seat and tried to feel the music flow through her, drown her recent loss, as she attempted to absorb the wonder and awe expressed through the organist’s skill. But the crowds around her seemed oblivious of the magic, and, appalled by their ignorance of the powerful music, Cecily felt her whole body tense with grief as the piece ended. ‘Morons! Can’t you stop your idle chatter and listen for once in your pathetic lives?’ Her outburst silenced those nearest her but their disapproving glares drove her back out to face the still pouring rain.”

A little more evocative?

The examples are just that: examples. There are many thesauruses around; I prefer the original Roget I started using in the 1980s, and it still resides just behind me on my reference shelf. I have other books of word choices, which I consult at those times when the apposite word evades me. But I try to acquire that ‘right’ word from the caverns of the scarce grey matter that takes up some of the void within my skull: it’s good mental exercise.

And, please, keep in mind that whilst any thesaurus will provide you with alternatives for the idea of the word you seek, not all those suggestions are true synonyms, so always consider context.

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