Thursday, September 23, 2021

For Writers: Finding the Right Word, Part 1


by Henry McLaughlin @RiverBendSagas

It seems to me the more writing I do, the more I find myself looking for the right word, the perfect word to convey what I want. Maybe it’s the color of a character’s eyes, or the fury in the sky as a thunderstorm scuds across the sky. It might be the clamor of city streets or the stillness of a forest at sundown. I become a perfectionist, seeking the best word to engage the reader in the story at that moment.

When this happens early in my writing process, like the first or second draft, I’ve sometimes forgotten one of the cardinal rules I learned early in my career—get the first draft out. Don’t stop writing to go searching for perfection. I’ll lose whatever momentum I’ve developed. I’ll stop writing.

Norah Lofts is credited with saying, “I can fix a bad page. I can’t fix a blank page.” This advice has inspired me to keep writing, even when what’s coming out is junk. Why? Because if I’ve got junk on the page, I’ve got something to work with.

I’ve learned that early drafts are the way to give the story idea some solidity. It becomes something tangible I can see and work with. This applies whether you’re an outliner or a pantser. I’ve done both. The outline is the skeleton. The story doesn’t come alive in the flesh until it’s written. The same applies to being a pantser. The idea doesn’t become real until I put words on the page.

When I get to the editing stage is when I look for the right word. 

The first tip I want to share is to be specific.

For example, I may have my characters traveling on a road. That’s fine for the early drafts, when getting the story moving is important (no pun intended). In the rewrite and tweaking is when I look for that right word to add clarity, mood, tension, and suspense by showing more detail. What kind of road is it? Is it an interstate? A country back road with potholes and a crumbling shoulder? Main Street in a small town? A boulevard in a big city?

Part of being specific is being descriptive without resorting to overwriting or purple prose.

I also need to keep the genre in mind. If it’s a western, the road might be two ruts carved by wagons. Or the setting may be a contemporary upscale neighborhood that would never use the words like ‘street’ or ‘avenue.’ They might use the names ‘way’ or ‘lane’ or ‘parkway.’

My go-to resource when I’m looking for the right word is J. I. Rodale’s The Synonym Finder. It’s one of the most complete sources for synonyms I’ve found.

The key is to narrow my list of words until I hit the one that best captures what I want the reader to visualize. This applies to more than just roads. I want the words to be appropriate to the setting of the scene, to the characters as they have grown in the story, and to the circumstances they find themselves in.

This especially applies to using the five senses. All too often I find mentees and editing clients using primarily sight and sound. Don’t forget the taste, smell, and feel. One of the most vivid descriptions I’ve read is how a character tasted the coppery smell of blood when he entered a murder scene. I thought, “yeah, I’ve had that same sensation. I just never put the smell of blood with the metallic taste.” Look for ways to describe from a unique sense than the usual ones we use. Think of how to describe the feel of corduroy under our fingers. Or of how tromping through six inches of heavy snow feels in our muscles, with the cold drilling into our cheeks and fingers.

In the next blog, I’ll share a few more tips.

What are some ways you’ve found to be specific in your writing?

TWEETABLE

Henry’s debut novel, Journey to Riverbend, won the 2009 Operation First Novel contest.

Henry edits novels, leads critique groups, and teaches at conferences and workshops. He enjoys mentoring and coaching individual writers.

Connect with Henry on his BLOG, TWITTER and FACEBOOK.

12 comments:

  1. Henry - as always, your posts are BINGO moments for me plus more tools for my tool chest. Thanks for the Rodale resource. Your wisdom inspires. Thanks.
    Jay in SC.

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    1. Thank you for your comment, Jay. I'm blessed you find my posts helpful and inspiring. May God bless your writing.

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  2. Always enjoy your posts. I've read the Riverbend series and look forward to reading more of your novels.

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    1. Thank you for your comment. I'm blessed you liked the Riverbend series. I am working on more novels and praying they will be published soon. One would be the next Riverbend book. Tha characters have more stories to tell. Blessings on your writing.

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  3. I have three books on my desk that are within reach at all times: my Bible, Nave's Topical Bible, and Rodale's Synomym Finder. Between the three of them, I can usually write a decent sentence.

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    1. Great resources, Sherry. May God bless your writing.

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  4. Thanks for this great post. I'm ordering Rodale's book now!

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    1. Edwina, thanks for your post. I'm sure you'll find Rodale very helpful. Blessings on your writing.

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  5. Great tips. Thank you. i had forgotten how important it is to get the first draft done.

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    1. Thank you, Maree. I’m blessed you find my post helpful. May God abundantly blessed you on your writing journey.

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  6. You’re welcome. I think it’s important to get that first draft out there so we have something to work. Perfection comes in the rewrites. Although, even then, we’ll never quite get there.
    Blessings as you continue your writing journey.

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  7. Your posts are always full of insight. I look forward to learning from them. I recently completed my first novel and in it, I used the same example of blood smelling/tasting like copper. You know, like when you were a kid and put a penny in your mouth. That's all kinds of yuck, but we did it anyway.

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