The Importance of the Right Word

Before the scene, before the paragraph, even before the sentence, comes the word. Individual words and phrases are the building blocks of fiction, the genes that generate everything else. Use the right words and your fiction can blossom. The French have a phrase for it—le mot juste— the exact right word in the exact right position.

Sounds easy, but those who write know it”s not. Using the best word takes practice. However, there are guidelines that can help. The right word is connotationally correct, intelligible, temporally appropriate and specific.

The right connotation

Words change over time. “Condescending,” for instance, was once a good thing to be. It meant that a person was willing to interact politely with people of lower social ranks. In Jane Austen”s world, a lady praised for her condescension was receiving a sincere compliment. Now, when Americans bristle at the idea that social rank should carry any weight in courtesy, “condescension” has acquired a negative description, because it means the speaker is acting as if she”s somehow “higher” than her listener. The word hasn”t changed meaning, but the connotation has.

All words have connotations, or a collection of social significances attached to them, as well as denotations, the actual dictionary meaning. For example, “Mom and apple pie” doesn”t mean simply a mother holding a pastry; it has come to carry overtones of American patriotism and an entire way of life. Similarly, “cross,” “Swastika” and “Mecca” carry heavy emotional baggage beyond their dictionary meanings. Every time you use these words, you bring more into the story than just two geometrical figures and the name of a city.

Even daily words carry connotations. How does a woman feel about being called “slim”? How about “skinny”? Not the same! Neither are “even-tempered” and “emotionally monotonous,” nor “trusting” and “gullible.” A slim, even-tempered, trusting woman might be an attractive character. One described as a skinny, monotonous dupe is not.

The right impression

Good writers are constantly aware of the impression each word carries. In narrative, written from the author”s point of view, word choice subtly shapes readers” reactions. In dialogue or thoughts, the right word can reveal what other characters think and feel. Here, the author (myself) and the character Sam have much different reactions to Jenny:

Jenny entered timidly, looking around with her shy smile. So many people at the ball! Maybe she”d just wait a bit before dancing, talk to Lady Carrington first. The old lady looked lonely, sitting by herself. Jenny walked quietly toward her.

“Hiding behind Lady Carrington,” Sam said brutally to his cousin. “Another mousy chit afraid of her own shadow.”

I have used “timid” and “shy” and “quietly” to describe Jenny, words with at least neutral connotations, showing Jenny”s kindness toward others. But Sam has used “mousy” and “afraid of her shadow,” much more negative words, for the same behavior. Also, by using “brutally” to describe Sam”s tone, rather than a more neutral word like “frankly” or “realistically,” I guided the reader toward a negative view of Sam.

Here are quick tips on selecting the right words
  • Be aware of words with heavy emotional baggage beyond their dictionary meanings. Every time you use such words, you bring along their history.
  • Only use $10 words if they add something a shorter word would not.
  • The metaphors and similes you employ in your stories should be appropriate to the story”s time and place.
  • The more exact words you give readers, the more clearly they see it, smell it, hear it, taste it.

The right intelligibility

This would seem obvious, but there are many questions around the mandate, “Make your prose intelligible.” Intelligible to whom? People have vocabularies of different sizes. If you write, “Justin thought Sam was the most parsimonious man he”d ever met,” will your readers know what Justin means?

Maybe yes, maybe no. A good rule of thumb for $10 words is to use them if two conditions exist: The word adds something a shorter word would not. (“Parsimonious,” for instance, characterizes Justin as well as Sam; it tells us that Justin thinks in sophisticated diction.) Second, the context makes clear that Sam is being accused of stinginess rather than lust or anger.

Jargon, acronyms or other words requiring specialized language also may be unintelligible. Here is a made-up but completely plausible paragraph in an espionage novel:

Dawes had been RSO for two decades, with all the old rules. So the DCI”s newest edict really chafed. Damn them all! He called up a Bucar and went fishing, his nine millimeter in his creel.

What”s an RSO? What does DCI stand for? Should a reader be expected to know the terms “Bucar,” “nine millimeter” and “creel”? To some extent, these will be judgment calls. Here are mine:

RSO and DCI (Regional Security Officer and Director of Central Intelligence) should be spelled out the first, and probably the second, time they appear, then used freely.

“Bucar,” an official Bureau car in FBI jargon, should either be named in full the first time it appears, or it should be made clear that it”s a car as Dawes climbs into it, leaving the reader to figure out the “Bu” part.

“Nine millimeter” is familiar as a type of gun from television; don”t explain.

“Creel” is obviously connected with fishing and is used to hold objects; don”t explain.

Readers of genre fiction, especially, become familiar with its specialized language. You must balance between boring them by overexplaining and mystifying them by under-explaining.

The right time and place

This is as much a question of tone as it is historical accuracy. It”s obvious that you won”t have Victorians saying, “Twenty-three skidoo,” or 21st-century teens saying, “Groovy, man.”

More subtle are the metaphors and similes you employ in your stories. These, too, should be appropriate to the time and place, or you risk bouncing the reader out of the story. My favorite temporally misplaced metaphor occurred in a Paleolithic romance popular a few years ago, in which a cave woman found her thoughts “derailed.” Rails and train wrecks lay 30,000 years in the future, and the author”s credibility suffered whiplash.

The right specifics

Readers want to visualize your story as they read it. The more exact words you give them, the more clearly they see it, smell it, hear it, taste it. Thus, a dog should be an “Airedale,” not just a “dog.” A taste should not be merely “good” but “creamy and sweet” or “sharply salty” or “buttery on the tongue.” Is your heroine”s dress “red,” or is it really “scarlet” or “wine” or “copper”?

Two warnings about specificity, however. First, you can overdo it. If every sentence drips with richness, the reader may get mental indigestion. Choose the exact word, but don”t choose 10 exact words for 10 facets of the same thing.

Second, sometimes a cigar is just a cigar and not a Havana. That occurs when the thing is being described through the eyes of your character, not the author, and the character doesn”t know the difference. To my grandmother, not an animal lover, all dogs were “dogs,” period. If your garage mechanic identifies his girlfriend”s dress as “a teal Prada,” he either has a very interesting employment history or else he cross-dresses.

Will choosing the exact word, the connotative word, the intelligible word, the temporally right word automatically make your story salable? No, of course not. There are still those important matters of plot, structure, character, ending … the list is long. But the right words can help, and I guarantee you one thing: Le mot juste will get the submission editor”s attention. That”s a pretty good start.

This article appeared in the October 2002 issue of Writer”s Digest.

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