07 July 2014

Jordan Takes Over: Finding the Right Word

**The first Monday of every month, I let my muse take over the blog. I apologize in advance.**

I’m back, bitches! Did you miss me? I know, I know—I haven’t written a blog post in forever. And it’s not because of laziness (no matter what Sarah tells you) or anything. It’s just…well, the last time I did a post was sort of last minute and not all that thought out. And it kinda sucked, really. So basically if I don’t have a good idea, I’m not gonna write a post every month, even if a certain someone starts kicking me. Yeah, ok, she kicks. But I bite.

Anyway! Today we’re gonna talk about word choice. Sometimes it’s easy, other times, not so much. Sometimes when you picture a scene, the words will just pop into your head without any effort at all (and on behalf of all the muses—you’re welcome). Other times you can struggle for hours just trying to get one sentence out (we really don't have anything to do with that...). 

What I really want to talk about is finding a word that works. One that fits with the scene you’re writing as well as the voice of the character (or the narrator if you’re using third person). Sometimes these two things don’t coincide. You may come up with the absolute, most perfect word ever to describe what is happening, but then realize that your narrator would never use this word—he may not even know this word exists. So then what? Do you leave that word in and hope no one notices—that the reader will suspend their disbelief about your narrator’s vocabulary?

Chances are that word is going to stick out like a sore thumb (wait…do sore thumbs stick out? Who came up with that phrase?). You want your voice to be authentic, because even if one word feels off, the reader is going to notice, and it’s going to take them out of the story. You want them to be so engulfed in your story that they forget that they’re reading one. And if they hit one of those words like a bump in the road, it will hit them: “Oh, right. This isn’t real.”

So how do you fix this problem? Well, first of all, you have to know your narrator. You have to know how he or she speaks and what sort of words and phrases will be believable for them. Once you have the voice developed enough, it should come naturally to you. But if you have a bigger vocabulary than your narrator, from time to time, you might come up with a sentence that maybe you would say but your narrator wouldn’t. That sentence may seem perfect for the situation, and it probably is, but if it doesn’t also fit your narrator’s voice, it isn’t going to work.

Example? I thought you’d never ask! So in my book, I’m fifteen and so I don’t have too many fancy words that I would use. But when miss writer lady was writing a particular sentence, the perfect word seemed to be “pretense.” Here’s what the sentence started out as: “I just wanted to strip away all of our clothing and pretense until all that was left was him and me, nothing in between.” Uh, right. Like I would ever use that word. In theory, it was perfect—a noun meaning pretending or make-believe. If you have pretense, then you’re faking something. That was the point she was trying to make—that the characters were pretending, faking—that this act was what was keeping them apart.

But that word just didn’t fit. It felt off. It was something I would never say. So we went to the thesaurus. It wasn’t much help. Charade, act, façade. Nothing seemed to fit both what she was trying to say and the voice of the narrator. Which isn’t to say that the thesaurus can’t be your best friend. We’ve found plenty of alternative words when she came up with some big, fancy schmancy word that I would never use. But sometimes, you’re gonna have to do a bit more thinking, which is exactly what we had to do. We had to let that pretense sit there for weeks—months, even—before finding the answer. Really, sometimes the best thing you can do is to just walk away. Keep writing. Perfect the voice a little more. Get inside the narrator’s head a little more. Write him or her in different situations. And then maybe when you go back to that imperfect phrase, the perfect word will slap you in the face.

And that’s exactly what happened. Because the perfect alternative for “pretense” in this particular sentence turned out to be…drumroll please…BULLSHIT. I’m serious. Here, look at it now: “I just wanted to strip away all of our clothing and bullshit until all that was left was him and me, nothing in between.” Sounds better, right? Less awkward? Like something I’d actually say? Honestly, I think it gets the point across even better than “pretense.”

So trust your narrator and trust your gut. If you think a word is wrong, it probably is, and if you notice it, your readers probably will, too.

See you next month! Maybe.



  1. Yeah I find the hardest thing for me is to keep writing when a word I wrote feels off. But often, doing just that is much better than hanging around and tinkering, trying to find the perfect fit.

  2. You're right about finding the right word. I have trouble with that, especially when I'm writing for younger readers. I know exactly the word that will capture the idea, but it's not a kid word. Then I have to scramble.

  3. Love this! Word choice is so important. It's funny how some days it just flows out to perfection and other days you can't come up with diddly-squat! I prefer the first of those days, but that's what editing is for - thank goodness. :)

  4. Nice post! And I especially agree with what you said about choosing words that the character would say; I've read stories where the dialogue sounded unnatural, because the writer made the characters say things that didn't fit their personalities or their ages.

  5. So I'm clearly still 15 at heart, because when I saw the sentence, I knew "bullshit" was the right word. hahaha

  6. Word choice is such a tricky concept...you need to make the writing authentic, but sometimes you also want a certain tone to come through the voice. But you're right...if the word is coming from the lips or the mind of a character, it needs to be a word the character would actually use. Great post!