Searching for the Right Words? Tip #20

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This series aims at helping writers find the right words to express their meaning. Your thoughts and comments are welcome.

Do you want to inspire readers with joy, stoke their terrors, romance them with love, overwhelm them with horror? This set of posts looks at ways of influencing mood by selecting the ‘right’ words for the job.


“The old woman watched the pair climb up until they reached the door. She gripped the key in her pocket. Since Julie had accused her, she’d had time to think about what she’d said and her face showed her intentions.”

Yes, this statement tells the reader the facts, but there’s no emotional content to plunge the reader into the real situation.

Let’s try again.

“The pair climbed into darkness and the old woman waited below, listening. She watched the flickering shadows until they faded to blackness and knew they’d reached the door at the top of the stairs. The old bones of her vengeful hand closed on the key in her pocket. She’d been unsure whether she should go through with her plan. But Julie’s dreadful accusations changed all that. It would serve her right to suffer a little, give her time to think about the wicked things she’d said. Triumph twitched Agatha’s lips, cut a quick gleam in her eyes.”

From my short horror, Heir to Death’s Folly, this sample gives the reader the detail that allows engagement with the characters and encourages them to wonder what will happen next.

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

I use Roget’s Thesaurus when editing, the 1987 edition, which I started with; it still lives within reach on my reference shelf. Other books of word choices, which I consult when the apposite word continues to evade me, live with it. But first I try to gather that ‘right’ word from the void within my skull: it’s good mental exercise.

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.