Use the Right Words: Upgrade Your Superlatives For Fame and (Better) Fortune

Writers often live or die by how engagingly they convey the extreme merits of something: a character's beauty or strength, an impassioned cause, a life-altering event. But equally crucial is how convincingly writers can extol---okay, "hype"--- their own work in queries and marketing. Some editors rightly warn against over-hyping in a proposal; but a touch of deft hype may be just what wins the day, with benefits far outweighing the risks. The greater danger is to acclaim your work with feeble, tread-worn superlatives such as nerve-tingling or heartwarming, which is like a billboard saying NO DISTINCTIVE VOICE HERE.
Author:
Publish date:

Writers often live or die by how engagingly they convey the extreme merits of something: a character's beauty or strength, an impassioned cause, a life-altering event. But equally crucial is how convincingly writers can extol---okay, "hype"--- their own work in queries and marketing.

Some editors rightly warn against over-hyping in a proposal; but a touch of deft hype may be just what wins the day, with benefits far outweighing the risks. The greater danger is to acclaim your work with feeble, tread-worn superlatives such as nerve-tingling or heartwarming, which is like a billboard saying NO DISTINCTIVE VOICE HERE.

(How NOT to start your story. Read advice from agents.)

Image placeholder title
Image placeholder title

Guest column by Arthur Plotnik, acclaimed editor and author
whose eight books include the recent Better Than Great:
A Plenitudinous Compendium of Wallopingly Fresh Superlatives (2011)
and newly revised and expanded The Elements of Expression:
Putting Thoughts Into Words (2012). He lives in Chicago.

In publishing, hype is the creation of interest by dramatic, flamboyant, or other exaggerating means; it is expected, even appreciated when done well. Through eight books, I've seen the best hype in my proposals picked up by agents selling the project, editors presenting it, and marketers promoting it.

In virtually all types of writing, authors need a commanding language of acclaim---an armament of fresh, inventive, attention-getting terms to describe exceptional qualities. The habitual terms won't do. Words like great, fantastic and incredible have been gnawed to the bone in acclaiming everything from nail salons to chicken wings. How, then, are writers to describe their work or themselves as something especially excellent or affecting, distinctively intense or cool? One answer: With the help of distinctively fresh superlatives.

In common usage, "superlatives" refer to terms that confer extraordinary or exaggerated qualities on something: "She's a goddess." "What a celestial performance!" When positive in value they becomes high praise or acclaim; but once-worthy superlatives like amazing are almost devaluing after their billionth indiscriminate use.

To alert agents and editors to your distinctiveness, try acclaiming your work and yourself in a strikingly fresh way. That way might call for terms that quickly signal your project's importance and impact---not clichés like major and mind-boggling, but apt choices from among such superlatives as singular, consummate, indelible, razor-edged, resonant. If you're flogging a light or comic manuscript, an unexpected term like larky, ludic, gloom-splintering, spritzy, belly-busting, and cockahooping can suggest something smart and original, rather than just another supposedly hilarious read.

In proposing fiction or memoirs, you'll want superlatives that distinguish the overall work as well as the characters you describe in your synopsis. For the work, try emphasizing a quality the book clearly delivers (unflinching) rather than predicting the agent's or editor's judgment (magisterial). Still, depending on the tone of the book, some stylish playfulness might be just the ticket. Instead of pitching an incredible story of escape from terrorist kidnappers, you might describe it as a skull-spinning or marrow-freezing story, a skin-tightening shocker, a soul-throttling, winched-to-the-limit, amen-astonishing tale for our times. For another type of story, creations such as wig-walloping, never-neverish, or all-agogging might get an agent's heart juddering.

In describing characters, it's okay to be judgmental if you can rise above cliché. Not a fierce competitor, but an unsparing, unremitting one, an avenger of there-will-be-blood brutality.

(How long should you wait before following up with an agent?)

Sometimes a common superlative, when intensified, works better than an alternative term. Let's say you need a superlative to introduce the femme fatale of your gumshoe novel, and the key term beautiful seems ordinary to you, as do such common synonyms as lovely, stunning, and gorgeous. Time to intensify: She was (choose one or two): arrantly, narcotically beautiful, beauty on a binge, calm-the-beast beautiful; set-your-heart-on-fire stunning; metagorgeous, I've-fallen-and-I-can't-get-up-gorgeous.

WHERE TO FIND FRESH SUPERLATIVES

Though limited in creative choices, the standard thesauruses and other synonym guides still uncork plenty of attention-getting superlatives. The key is: make the effort. Seek out good, underused terms such as stellar, peerless, masterly, bedazzling, incantatory, arresting, and transformative.

Explore under a variety of categories, not just obvious ones like "Greatness," "Goodness," or "Superiority." ("Wonder" yields such terms as beguiling, numinous, and stupefying.) Follow the thesaurus's cross-references. Track such concepts as Intense, Forceful, Large, High, Beautiful, and Fashionable. Browse unlikely categories for surprise finds. Under "Bubble" in Roget's, for example, I nabbed effervescent, ebullient, and spumescent.

You might also want to consult some specialized word books, such as Describer's Dictionary, The Thinker's Thesaurus, and my own scalp-scorching compilation of 6,000 fresh superlatives, Better Than Great.

Agents and editors are generally word people, roused from the fug of generic proposals by a fresh, surprising locution. Such locutions can be yours—three or four superlatives used sparingly and strategically, but nonetheless head-swerving, socko-boffo, bone-brilliant, and clangorously great.

Image placeholder title


Join the Writer's Digest VIP Program today!

You'll get a subscription to the magazine, a
subscription to WritersMarket.com, discounts
on almost everything you buy, a download,
and much more great stuff.

Other writing/publishing articles & links for you:

Image placeholder title

Want to build your visibility and sell more books?
Create Your Writer Platform shows you how to
promote yourself and your books through social
media, public speaking, article writing, branding,
and more.
Order the book from WD at a discount.

Stationery vs. Stationary (Grammar Rules)

Stationary vs. Stationery (Grammar Rules)

Learn the differences of stationary and stationery on with Grammar Rules from the Writer's Digest editors, including a few examples of correct usages.

Erik Larson Quote

Liminal Spaces: A Profile of Erik Larson

WD gives a peek at the daily routine of Erik Larson and the writing process behind his bestselling narrative nonfiction in this Nov/Dec 2020 profile by Zachary Petit.

Jennifer Boresz Engelking: On Giving Readers a New Appreciation of History

Jennifer Boresz Engelking: On Giving Readers a New Appreciation of History

Debut author Jennifer Boresz Engelking discusses what led her to write her historical nonfiction book Hidden History of Lake County Ohio and how research gave her a new appreciation for her hometown.

April PAD Challenge

2021 April PAD Challenge: Day 19

Write a poem every day of April with the 2021 April Poem-A-Day Challenge. For today's prompt, write an animal title poem.

Writer's Digest May/June 2021 Cover Reveal

Writer's Digest May/June 2021 Cover Reveal

Presenting the May/June 2021 issue of Writer's Digest featuring a collection of articles about how curiosity fuels writers, including the 23rd Annual 101 Best Websites for Writers and a new interview with Chris Bohjalian.

Through Another’s Eyes: An Auschwitz Survivor Inspires His Biographer

Through Another’s Eyes: An Auschwitz Survivor Inspires His Biographer

Popular lecturer and biographer Joshua M. Greene discusses the hardship of writing the biographies of Holocaust survivors, and the biography that convinced him to continue writing.

writer's digest wd presents

WD Presents: The May/June 2021 Issue, a Chance at Publication, and more!

This week, we’re excited to announce that the May/June 2021 “Curiosity” issue is now live in the WD shop, there’s still time to have your From Our Reader’s response selected for publication in the July/August 2021 “Bravery” issue, and more!

April PAD Challenge

2021 April PAD Challenge: Day 18

Write a poem every day of April with the 2021 April Poem-A-Day Challenge. For today's prompt, write an ekphrastic poem.

Personal Essay Awards

Announcing the First Annual Personal Essay Awards Winners

Congratulations to the winners of the first annual Writer's Digest Personal Essay Awards!