Searching for the Right Words? Tip #4


Do you want to inspire readers with joy, arouse their fear, romance them with love, or does your story need the reader to sink into despair along with your protagonist? This set of posts looks at ways of influencing mood by selecting the ‘right’ words for the job.

I started out this series with the intention of using key words to illustrate the way in which word choice can influence the emotional response of readers to our work. However, the route I initially took involved me in a lot of work for little real gain for readers and used a good deal of my time. It also produced quite lengthy posts. So not a good choice for any of us.

I’m trying a different approach. Let me know what you think, please. I’m using samples of work from my own published books to show how word choice can influence readers. That way, the illustrative text is ready made and I have only to invent a simpler piece of text as a contrast. I’m busy editing a WIP, so my time’s limited and I’m hoping this approach will work better for all.

Here goes with the first example:

“I was cold after my walk through the snow. When he offered to take my coat, I stood up too quickly in the warm room and fainted.”

This, written in first person, tells us what happened. But there’s no emotional content: it’s factual and quite bland. Might be okay for a thriller, but no good at all for a romance, which is where the following example comes from.

“My fingers were numb and the knots in my frozen laces almost defeated me. By the time I had them untied, the heat inside the room was overpowering. I got up too quickly as he offered to help with my coat. His next words made no sense through a loud buzzing in my head. My skin felt wet and cold. The walls swayed in and out of focus, as if they might fall in on me. Abruptly, everything went black.”

Taken from ‘Breaking Faith’, this piece provides the reader with a much more personal experience of the event, allowing them to have empathy with the character.

If nothing else, I hope the series will enhance our writing with words that more precisely reflect what we’re trying to convey to readers.

I use a thesaurus during editing, when necessary, and prefer the original Roget I started with in the 1980s; it still resides just behind me on my reference shelf. I have other books of word choices, which I consult when the apposite word continues to evade me. But I try initially 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.

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

2 thoughts on “Searching for the Right Words? Tip #4

  1. As someone told since my schooldays to “put more meat on the bones” when writing, I have developed an an entertaining exercise for finding the apposite words, and challenging my own sparse style. I write a couple of pages in spoof mode. I exaggerate, pile on the adjectives, add extra description in the form of dependent clauses, and invent outlandish similes. Going back to the text a few days later, I think “What can I salvage here?” The results are sometimes surprising.

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    1. An inventive way of doing this, Madeleine. And it sounds like fun. I know your results work, so it’s something others might like to try.


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