Searching for the Right Words? Tip #31

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This series is intended to help authors express the full meaning and emotional content of their fiction.

As writers, we want to inspire readers with joy, stoke their terrors, romance them with love, overwhelm them with horror, inflame their passions. This set of posts examines how we might influence mood, illustrating how word choice and sentence structure can alter the reading experience. All thoughts and comments are welcome.


“They’d walked less than a mile before they saw the waterfall. Its spray wet them. The climb to the top wasn’t easy and one of them would have to carry the dog, so he passed his pack to his companion. At the top, they rested and the dog ran off.”

The reader knows the facts from this. But is she engaged? Does he have an impression of the waterfall? Do readers gain any sense of what the event entailed?

How about this as an alternative?

“They’d travelled less than a thousand paces, the water’s roar growing loud enough to defeat conversation, when they came in sight of the thundering falls. Spray, in rainbow mist, soaked them as they surveyed the treacherous climb to the top. It was a scramble that needed hands and feet and Shaulah would never make it. Okkyntalah passed his pack to Aglydron with a signal and hoisted his dog across his shoulders, holding her feet together in one hand and using the other to help him climb. It was dangerous and they were both soaked and weary when they reached a narrow, flat space at the top. Shaulah gave Okkyntalah a swift lick on his nose and dashed off to hunt for scents, as they rested on the flat outcrop between sheer cliffs that forced the river into its thundering torrent.”

This passage is from Joinings: A Seared Sky, book 1 of the epic fantasy trilogy. It gives the sort of detail that helps the reader empathise with 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. It lives within easy reach on my reference shelf. Other books of word choices, which I sometimes consult when the apposite word continues to evade me, reside alongside it. But I first try to gather that ‘right’ word from the tumultuous void within my skull: it’s good mental exercise and trains the brain to seek and retrieve the right word in the future.

Any thesaurus will provide alternatives for the idea of the word you’re looking for, but not all those suggestions are true synonyms, so always consider context by placing it in the sentence and making sure it actually makes sense.