Searching for the Right Words? Tip #29

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This series aims to help writers use the right words to express their meaning and emotional content. All thoughts and comments are welcome.

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


“They went down the steps slowly because the candlelight didn’t go very far. At the bottom, they saw the chest. It made them continue, in spite of the funny smell.”

This gives the reader information. But does it show the reader what the characters are experiencing, does it engage the reader, is it interesting to read?

Shall we try again?

“They descended slowly, the candle flame flickering with each step taken and the pool of light slowly dropping with them, until they could make out the curved barrel top of a large metal-shod wooden chest in what appeared to be the dead centre of the floor. The sight quickened their hearts as much as their steps. They continued down, the cool damp air and sinister smell of less concern than their hunger for whatever treasure the chest must hold.”

This passage is from Heir to Death’s Folly, a short gothic horror story. The scene provides details that allow the reader to empathise with the characters and their experience.

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 prefer 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, reside with it. But first I try to gather that ‘right’ word from the tumultuous 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.