Searching for the Right Words? Tip #32

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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.


“She knew the sea could be rough because, although her personal experience was limited to shrimping in the shallows, her friend’s father had said it could be very dangerous. And she had seen the wild waves on the shore.’

This is factual and tells the reader a little about the observer’s experience of the sea. However, it makes no emotional connection and fails to show the reader how the observer might actually view the sea.

How about this as an alternative?

“Tumalind’s experience of the sea was as swimmer and fisher for shrimps with a net in the shallows. Okkyntalah’s father, who took his small boat into the waters close to Morstahn, had told her the sea could be more dangerous and unpredictable than a wounded stripecat. She’d stood on the shore and watched dark clouds cover the sky and grey the blue waters. She’d seen the far swell froth with white manes as wind scooped the tops off crests. She’d listened to the angry roar of breakers smashing hard on the beach, ripping out trees near the water’s edge and piling great banks of shingle and sand under the cliffs.”

This passage is from Joinings: A Seared Sky, book 1 of the epic fantasy trilogy. It gives the reader detail to help him or her empathise with the setting. This passage is a short introduction to a longer scene that plunges the reader into Tumalind’s terrifying experience of a storm at sea. The repetition of the sentence starts with ‘She’d’ helps build the reader’s empathy with the character, as the whole event is seen through the eyes of this young woman.

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.