Searching for the Right Words? Tip #39

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This is the penultimate post in the series that aims to help authors express the full meaning and emotional content of their fiction. However, I intend to start a new series, again to do with word choice, and will begin that after the last post in this series. Keep an eye out for it.

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 can influence mood, illustrating how word choice and sentence structure alters the reading experience. All thoughts and comments are welcome.


“He gobbled the dessert greedily down until there was just the empty glass that his spoon clattered against. She watched him with annoyance as she ate her own sweet.’

There are so many things wrong with this sample that I hesitate to start. However, whilst it describes the event, it does nothing to draw the reader into the experience.

Shall we try an alternative?

“He dug in: shovelling great dollops of light confection into his jaws, hardly sampling the flavours, barely noticing the succulent fresh fruit as he gulped each mouthful down and shoved in the next. She viewed him with distaste, understanding his boorish display was punishment for her continued coolness. Before her spoon was level with the top of her tall glass, he was finishing; his spoon clattering the sides as he scoured out final traces.”

This sample comes from a short story, Cooling Under a Foreign Sun, which appears in the romance anthology, Ten Love Tales. The story looks at a relationship marred by the man’s reluctance to engage his new wife’s best friend in her native tongue and how this impacts on their enjoyment of a holiday (don’t worry, all is well in the end, as is the requirement for romance). In this scene, the pair have entered an ice cream parlour and are cooling off physically whilst their emotional status still needs a little time to settle.

I tried to create the mood of dissonance and the air of dissatisfaction by using the food and the manner of its consumption as a metaphor for their feelings. Note the use of ‘hard’ words like ‘shovelling’, ‘dollops’ and ‘gulped’ that lend emphasis to the man’s aggressive stance. Later in the passage, I employ softer language to describe the woman’s response. Choosing the optimum words makes all the difference to the effectiveness of a piece of writing.

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.