Word Choice: Finding the Right Shade of a Word

As a writer you are an artist. The page is the canvas and the paint are the words. Use words to paint a picture, creating a movie in the theater of the mind’s eye. – Michael Knost.

I know I’ve hit on this subject before in my Good Description series, but this topic deserves repeating because of the important and necessary role that words play in writing. This is one of the areas in my writing that I have been focusing on this year. I have found that actively being conscious of the words I chose makes a BIG difference in the way a story sounds and how successful I am at conveying the story message to the reader.

Some people look at a story as a sheet of music because of the rhythm it makes as it is read. If you are a avid reader, you might know this already. Prose is similar to music because if done right it sings to the reader.

At the highest level, the sound a writer makes on the page is music. So you can say writing is music we can all read. Instead of clef notes, sharps, and minors, full stops or half stops, and all the other symbols actual music employs, English has letters, syllables, and words. – Richard Goodman, The Soul of Creative Writing 

It’s a beautiful thing when a story comes together with all the right characters, story arcs, meanings, and emotional depth, but none of it means a thing if the symphony of words comes to a jarring stop because one word sticks out like a sore thumb. The wrong shade of a word can cause teeth to grind and the reader to become a disbeliever of the world that was created in the story.

What do I mean by a shade of a word? As you already know from all those years spent in grade school, there are many words that have similar meanings or synonyms. I strongly encourage pulling out the thesaurus or even use www.thesaurus.com to discover words that might work to keep the rhythm of the story in tune.

Example 1: 

The street was bare as she walked across to the other side.

The street was empty as she walked across to the other side.

Which do you think sounds better in this situation? Well, it all depends on the context of the story. The first thing that comes to mind when we see the word bare is to associate it with someone without clothes. Yes, it also means unadorned or open to view, but is it the right word for this situation? It might be if you have a story that is about nakedness or a character that has a quirk of taking off their clothes for no apparent reason. Then using bare would be an excellent choice to describe the street, because it’s mirroring the theme of the story or flaw of the character. Otherwise, empty might be a better choice.
Example 2:
A story has a main character who is the CEO of a company. Which do you think he would be more likely to say?
“Our numbers sucked this quarter. How the heck did this happen?” 
“Our numbers were atrocious this quarter. How could this happen? “

The second example leads me to another thing that should be considered in a story… the character. Make sure characters have their own voice and not that of the writer… you. Use words that reflect the character’s background, profession and personality to make the character unique.

What colors or smells would a sailor know that a farmer does not? How would they describe something they both have seen? Wouldn’t the different experiences of the farmer and sailor cause them to  have a slightly different skew of the world around them?

Whether you are painting a masterpiece or conducting a symphony, getting the right word is essential to making the story the best it can be. Like any painter or musician, it takes practice and plenty of patience to be good at the craft of creativity. The next time you sit down to write and run across a sentence or paragraph that doesn’t feel right or clashes on the ears, pull out the thesaurus and take a closer look at the words. Let the rhythm of the story tell you what shade of word should be used.


Note: Some of the above information came from notes from a recent class I took by Michael Knost. A man who always knows how to blow my mind and make me see things in a different light. Thank you, Michael.

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