Looking for the Best Word? Tip #26

Word cloud created through Prowritingaid.com

This series offers help to writers trying to make their work more accessible, interesting, varied, accurate and effective by exploring similar and dissimilar words. It also provides language learners with insights into some of the peculiarities of the English language.

A good thesaurus gives alternatives for the idea of a word, but not all suggestions are true synonyms. Context matters. Placing synonyms into a sentence to see whether they make sense is a way of checking suitability. But it’s not foolproof, so a good dictionary is also essential.

My chosen dictionary is the two-volume Shorter Oxford English Dictionary. And I use Roget’s Thesaurus for word selection; the 1987 edition. But I try to dig the best word from my overloaded memory first: it’s good mental exercise. Other books of words, which I consult when an appropriate term evades me, live on the reference shelves behind me.

So, to this week’s words: a slight change in direction for this post; aimed directly at authors of all types.

I’m currently part way through the first draft of a novel and I was struck by an event that happened earlier in the week. I was writing a sentence and couldn’t bring to mind the precise word required to complete it. That left me with a choice. I could interrupt my chain of thought and search for the right word, or I could put in a placeholder and then search for the right term during the editing process, by which time I’d probably have recalled the one I was searching for.

I write as a pantster. For those who don’t know, this means I write without a plot, allowing my characters to develop the story as they proceed along a route of their own choosing to the destination I intend. Sometimes they make changes that alter the ending, but that’s another story. As a pantster, the last thing I want during the creative process is any interruption to the flow. I need to get the story out, to let it be told. So, for me, the option of stopping to select the right word at that point wasn’t really there at all. The placeholder, a word with similar meaning to the one I sought, was the only option.

As it happened, for this particularly convoluted sentence, I failed to find three separate words and had to use three different placeholders. But the story continued to unfold.

I know certain writers find such a way of working difficult, if not impossible. They need to say exactly what they mean at the time of composing. I can’t work that way; I end up with a stilted version of what I’m trying to create.

However, it made me wonder how often this type of dilemma results in a writer growing so obsessed with discovering the precise word he/she seeks that he/she is unable to finish the sentence, and therefore the paragraph, and therefore the book. I’m sure it happens frequently and I invite those who use the ‘perfect word’ method to give the pantster technique a trial. You’ve nothing to lose and may gain a great deal.

I’ve taken the plotting route more than once and it’s always proved a disaster. I once wrote 78,000 words of a thriller based on plot. In the days before home computers were common (yes, I’m that ancient!) I wrote the piece by hand on lined foolscap paper. When I began to re-read the piece, prior to editing to type it up, I was struck by how false it sounded. I hated it so much that I chucked the entire thing in the bin. That story, which remains in my memory, has never been told. I went on to test the pantster method and have never looked back.

Perhaps, now so much time has passed, I might revisit that thriller, as a pantster, and make a better job of it. But I tell the tale here only to illustrate the possible disadvantage of allowing selection of the right word at the wrong time to dictate how you create a story: you might never finish it!

Next week, back to the normal format. For language learners, there’s a great group page on Facebook, which you can find through this link.

I welcome observations and suggestions here. Please use the comments section below for your ideas and thoughts.

By the way, a Google search today for ‘Writers Help’ brought up 83,000,000 results. One post from this series was 4th in the list and a second was 6th! And the 1st three, plus the 5th, were all from a site whose URL includes the words ‘writers help’ So, it appears you’re in good company when you read these posts.

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