Writing Tip: Getting the words right

Chicks and Hens Animals photo comparing semantics to a chicks and hens plant photo.
Photo by K Kannan on Unsplash

Every writer needs to understand the importance of semantics and connotation. In our case, we’re talking about using the exact correct word needed to evoke the emotion or image we want.

Imagine you’re reading a story about how the protagonist smashed her car into a tree, but then later it’s revealed that the car only got a minor scratch. Would you lose trust in the writer’s other descriptions?

Or, how about a personal example. Suppose you were looking to start raising chickens and happen to see an ad written on a piece of cardboard nailed to a post saying free chicks and hens. What would you do if you got there and they were giving away plants? How would you feel? Disappointed? Cheated?

Words are stronger than we think know realize.

Remember the old saying sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me? Many of us have used this as a shield at least once, but in reality, words can scrape, sting, bruise, cut, tear, blast, and rip as good as, if not better than, any weapon. They may not leave physical scars, but they can leave permanent emotional damage.

Words have power. They’re much more than simple definitions; they’re images, feelings, and motion. Words can also have cultural and social implications beyond their original meaning. Sometimes a whole story can be inside one word.

Also, words can stay with us longer than a single image. They can change the way we witness something. I recently took an online course on Coursera. In one of the modules, the professor talked about an experiment by Loftus and Palmer that was set up to see if words affect eyewitness accounts. They wanted to know if a lawyer’s leading question can change the way someone remembers an incident.

They showed student participants a short video of an accident, they then asked the students how fast the cars were going. For each group, they used different verbs; crashed, hit, bumped, collided, smashed. Example: How fast were the cars going when they crashed into each other?

The results showed that the people who heard the word smashed estimated higher speeds despite what video showed. They also had a higher chance of ‘remembering’ broken glass even though there wasn’t any.

The researchers concluded that words can alter our memory. How powerful is that? Words can be more powerful than what we see with our own eyes.

So, when we’re creating our stories, we need to use powerful words that will leave a lasting impression. But we also want to remember to use them accurately.

Random words won’t do.

Thesauruses have gotten a bad rap. I see a lot of advice saying that they’re a writer’s enemy. To me, a thesaurus is just a book, a tool. It’s how you use it that counts.

If you use it to find a different word for one you’ve repeated a couple of times, or if you’re using it to find a bigger word to impress someone, or if you pick one at random, or even if you’re picking one that looks powerful, then you might be using it wrong.

Remember, words convey more than an image, like the hens and chicks example, they also convey emotion and mood vital to scene-setting and plot. If you set the mood or scene wrong, it could derail your whole story. And like with the broken glass in the car experiment, sometimes words convey things that aren’t there. You want to be sure you’re not painting an unintended picture.

Seek out vocabulary.

The best way to get better at picking the right word isn’t by using a thesaurus, even though it can jog our memory. For me, often the right word is on the tip of my tongue, but I can’t remember what it is. That’s when I go to the thesaurus. Or if I know it’s like a word, but that word isn’t right.

Thesauruses are helpful, but the best way to get our words right is to know them in the first place. That means we need to constantly be growing our vocabulary. And the best way to do that is by reading.

Every writer should be a reader. I can’t express that enough. There are so many things you pick up instinctively by reading. But a writer should take it a step further and take notice of things that work, both structurally and wording.

I also suggest writers actively seek out new vocabulary — word of the day calendars, emails, and podcasts and vocabulary books are good options. It’s also a good idea to familiarize yourself with commonly misused words that are found in most grammar books.

Play with your words.

As you’re learning new words, notice them in other stories. Notice how they’re used; notice the syntax and rhythm. How do they make you feel?

And then use them when talking to other people, when you’re writing in your head, or write them in a journal to remember at a later date. But, don’t use them in your stories until you feel somewhat comfortable with them.

The more you see them in other works and play with them in your head, the more natural they’ll come to you when you write. You’ll get an ear for what sounds right.

Then, when editing double-check your words. You may want to keep a dictionary handy. Also, try using other words as replacements. Do any of them sound better? Read it out loud. Does it sound natural? If you’re still unsure, ask your beta readers if any words stick out.

Writers want to get our words right because when we do, magic happens. By using the exact words needed, we paint a picture that our readers can view in their mind and feel in their heart. Our story becomes a part of them.

Exercise: Think about how the words bolded in the following sentences impact your image about what’s going on? If each of these were writing prompts, how would the stories differ? What emotions are going on between the two people? Can you tell anything about their personalities? What isn’t being said? Discuss in the comments.

  1. Sophie patted Don’s hand.
  2. Sophie grabbed Don’s hand.
  3. Sophie held Don’s hand.
  4. Sophie took Don’s hand.
  5. Sophie’s hand brushed against Don’s.

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