Searching for the Right Words? Tip #34

bwsparkling sea
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This series aims to help authors express the full meaning and emotional content of their fiction. As writers, we seek 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.


“The girls followed the fat woman down streets to the harbour, where big ships were moored. It was early morning and the seagulls were noisy and there was a smell of fish.”

This passage tells the reader a little about what happened. But there’s no atmosphere, nothing to engage the imagination of the reader here.

How about this as an alternative?

“They followed her from the house. For a small, portly woman, she moved with surprising speed, kicking up dust with her small, bare feet. She quickly had the girls lost amongst winding streets down by the harbour. There, small fishing boats lay at anchor in the early morning sunlight, bright sparkles flashing amongst the dark reflections of hard, wet wood. Seemeeuws cried their melancholy calls and a gentle wash of water on shingle announced the soft state of the sea. The ubiquitous smell of fish and seaweed hung in the warm breeze, mixed with spicy cooking aromas from a waterside inn. Two large ships, bigger than any Tumalind had ever seen, were moored on the quay and one, a two-masted vessel, was being loaded with supplies.”

This passage is from Joinings: A Seared Sky, book 1 of the epic fantasy trilogy. It shows the reader enough detail to help make the experience real. It’s part of a longer scene that takes the reader on a journey through a town and events strange to the main character, Tumalind. Note the use of an author-coined word for the seagulls – seemeeuws – which, in a fantasy creates a sense of another world, whilst describing the birds by their sounds.

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 to use Roget’s Thesaurus when editing; the 1987 edition. It’s within easy reach on my reference shelf. Other books of word choices, which I sometimes consult when the apposite word evades me, reside alongside it. But, first, I try to glean that ‘right’ word from the teaming void within my skull: it’s good mental exercise and trains the brain to seek and find the right word in the future.

A good thesaurus provides alternatives for the idea of the word you’re seeking, but not all the suggestions are true synonyms. Always consider context by placing it in the sentence and making sure it actually makes sense.