Give yourself time to find the right words

Wednesday, February 08, 2017
“The difference between the almost right word and the right word is really a large matter. ’Tis the difference between the lightning bug and the lightning.”
― Mark Twain, The Wit and Wisdom of Mark Twain

Did you ever try to find the right word, only to to circle around it for a while, look up its synonyms, and synonyms of the synonyms to make your sentence perfect? I have. And if you are reading this, you probably have as well.

Words are difficult. They have multiple meanings and sometimes don't create the exact mood or flow you want in your writing. Or, the meaning you wish to convey is not the meaning others perceive. This infuriating process can drive us crazy, and may explain why some writers go mad.

To help alleviate the problem, consider giving your work a rest. Put it away for a while, and revisit it after letting it simmer on the shelf (or in the computer file). Reading our words after a resting period allows us the space to read them again as if they were new. This process may help us identify sentences that don't flow, or find words that don't fit. A little time also can help us spot unnecessary words or a confusing word order.

When reading the work after a rest, ask yourself if the words you've chosen make the sentence smooth and creamy, or rough and itchy? Here's an example:

First version - Mrs. Longberger's night clothes puffed out behind her as she walked briskly down the hall. (Not terrible, but a little rough and itchy.)

Second version - Mrs. Longberger's dressing gown billowed behind her as she traversed the long hallway. (Smooth and creamy. The words are softer.)

Are traversed and walked synomyms? I thought so, but wasn't positive, so I looked them up. According to the Cambridge Academic Content Dictionary (online) traverse means to move or travel through an area. Close enough. There are other meanings, but I decided that this word conveys the correct mood.

Every word is important, and giving yourself a little time and space to read your work again may improve your writing.


Mary Horner is the author of Strengthen Your Nonfiction Writing, and teaches communications at St. Louis and St. Charles Community Colleges.


Sioux Roslawski said...

Mary--If all writers remembered your last words ("Every word is important") all of our manuscripts, articles, letters and poems would sing across the page.

I often use time. Given some time, when I come back to the piece, I can look at my word choice with fresh eyes.

Thanks for this post. I always feel like I'm in a (helpful and interesting) workshop when I read your posts.

Unknown said...

Great advice! I struggle with every word, line and paragraph in my stories to make them "mind" me.

Mary Horner said...

Thanks Sioux, I haven't felt as confident with the last two posts, and I appreciate your comments. I also let this post "rest" a bit, came back, changed it, and turned it into something a little different than first attempt. It's all about the process. Anonymous, I also struggle with everything, and right now more than usual. Maybe it's some added stress that will hopefully resolve itself this summer. Thanks for your comments.

Angela Mackintosh said...

Great post, Mary! I actually like both your examples. They not only have a different feel but a different action just from changing a couple words.

Mary Horner said...

Thanks, Angela! I have some other examples I may share later, but I love the way words can create a particular emotion in the reader!

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