Have you ever seen the movie Throw Momma From the Train (aff link)? It’s a classic 80s comedy about the hilarious misadventures of a writing instructor (Billy Crystal) and one of his students (Danny Devito). When the film opens, Billy Crystal’s character is suffering from an extreme case of writer’s block. In fact, he can’t complete the first sentence of his next novel: The night was…
The character’s search for the perfect word to finish the sentence persists throughout the film (as a sub-plot): The night was hot. The night was hot and wet. The night was humid. The night was cold. The night was foggy. The night was dry.
Of course in the real world, we can solve such problems by using a thesaurus, but in the movie, this quest for the perfect word provokes a lot of frustration for the character (and laughs from the audience). He does eventually find the ideal word, but you’ll have to watch the movie to find out which word he ends up using and where he gets it.
The Right Word
Billy Crystal’s search for the perfect word in Throw Momma from the Train is one of my favorite film representations of what it means to be a writer. Finding the right word can breathe life into an otherwise lifeless sentence. When we choose words carefully, our writing is clearer and more meaningful.
Of all the tools and techniques that we writers use, none are as critical as our raw materials, our basic building blocks: words. A riveting story will fall flat on its face if readers can’t make sense of it. A thought-provoking essay will be handily dismissed if the language doesn’t clearly communicate the writer’s ideas and intentions. And poetry, which especially emphasizes word choice, is intolerant of lazy writing and imprecise or inaccurate word choices.
I believe the two greatest goals in word choice are to be clear and concise. Certainly there are people who pride themselves on reading a convoluted passage dozens of times in order to understand it. However, if a piece needs to be read multiple times for basic comprehension, the writer has failed at his or her primary responsibility, which is to communicate.
Having said that, precision is also an important consideration. Does the word you’ve chosen convey your intent accurately? Could it be misinterpreted? What connotations does it carry?
How to Make the Best Possible Word Choices
Fortunately, there are plenty of tools and techniques you can use to make the best possible word choices. Here are some simple writing tips to help make your writing clear and coherent:
- Dictionary: Make sure each word means what you need it to mean. If you’re not 100% sure about a word’s meaning, look it up in the dictionary. Watch out for homophones!
- Accuracy: Every word should convey your meaning accurately. Precision leads to greater clarity, so use the most precise words available. There’s no such color as dull black. It’s charcoal.
- Connotation: Connotation goes hand-in-hand with accuracy and precision. Be aware of each word’s deeper meaning. For example, when people are cheap, the connotation implies that they are stingy, but people who are economical have smart spending habits.
- Necessity: Is every word and every sentence absolutely necessary? In my editing work, it’s not unusual for me to cut 50 or more words from a 1000-word piece. If a word (or phrase) isn’t essential, delete it.
- Aesthetics: Sometimes there are several different words that will do the job. Other times, there are a variety of ways you can arrange words or sentences. In cases like these, the decision may come down to musicality. Be considerate of how each word sounds.
- Clarity: Clarity is the ultimate goal of communication. If the writing is unclear, communication will be unsuccessful. Make sure your intent is obvious. Don’t be vague, and don’t hesitate to rewrite portions of text that lack clarity. Rework it until it makes sense.
- Simplicity: They say less is more, and it’s true. Don’t use a five-syllable word when there’s a perfectly good two-syllable word that will convey the same meaning. Don’t spend paragraphs or pages describing something that could be expressed in a few sentences. Keep it simple!
- Jargon: I love Star Trek, but I have no idea what most of the techno-babble means. However, it’s necessary to the story, otherwise characters would be saying things like, “That thing that makes our starship go is broken.” Beware: sometimes jargon is used ineffectively and causes confusion for the reader. Use it wisely and with caution (and make sure it’s necessary).
- Loaded language: Language is considered loaded when it’s designed to evoke a particular emotional response from the audience through manipulation. It usually involves twisting the truth and is a favorite practice among politicians, pundits, and charlatans. If you need to rely on manipulation to make a point, maybe your point is not worth making.
- Specificity: Vague, obscure writing is meaningless. The trick is to strike the right balance between being specific and providing too much detail. For example, you might give a character a star-shaped birthmark below her right ear. That’s specific. However, long fingernails on a woman are so common, the detail might be too general and therefore meaningless.
- Be natural: Language is most clear when it sounds natural. If readers have to trip over their tongues to get through a paragraph, your text is in trouble. A great way to make sure the prose flows naturally is to read it aloud.
- Thesaurus: Use a thesaurus to find the best possible word choices for every sentence you write. If a word sounds wrong, feels wrong, or doesn’t have the exact meaning that you intend, find a replacement in the thesaurus. If you can’t find one, then some rewriting may be in order.
Every Word Matters
How much effort do you put into choosing the right words for your writing? Have you ever spent days, weeks, even months, in search of the perfect word? How often do you consult the thesaurus? Share your word-choice adventures by leaving a comment, and keep writing!
Necessity is something I will have to work on. As a highschool student, a large portion of the grade I get for papers is length. Because of this, and the fact that I simply want to be done with the assignment, I have developed a style consisiting of long, almost flowery sentances.
I did the same thing in school. In order to meet the teacher’s word- or page-count requirements, we often use a lot of unnecessary words or sentences. In college, I dropped that habit and focused instead on using my thoughts and ideas to fill the pages. After college, I worked at making my writing even more concise. Those long, flowery sentences work in some forms, but if you decide to forgo them, you might find that it’s not such a hard habit to break. Good luck!
I’d be lost without my thesaurus! Even though my vocabulary isn’t minimal by any means, I always feel like I could do better and put new glorious words to good use. I downloaded an SAT-prep iPhone app for vocabulary flash cards, and that’s been helping me expand my horizons a bit. So far, so good. 🙂
And oh man, it’s hard to cut out words…
I often cite The Chicago Manual of Style as my favorite writing resource, but the thesaurus is probably my true favorite. What a treasure trove it is! I used to have a hard time cutting words, too. In fact, I used to save entire sentences and paragraphs that I would cut from a piece of writing. But now I delete with total abandon. Every snip makes my writing tighter and more concise. It’s like lopping off long hair (something I do every few years). It’s freeing, and it feels good!
I heavily rely on a thesaurus as well. I am leery of using the same word too, close together. Also, a thesaurus inspires ideas because of the subtle and not so subtle nuances between the words. Redundancy can take the wind out of the sails of any point one is trying to make.
Excellent article, thanks. I’ve found that I’m a slow writer and will spend hours on one paragraph just because I’m not happy with the words or feel of it and even then, when I walk away, I might still not be convinced. And then, the next day when I attempt it again it will just come to me. Sometimes it works on the first try and sometimes it takes forever.
I love your dedication! I don’t have the patience to work on a single paragraph for hours in a single sitting, but I do come back to a problematic paragraph again and again, over several days if necessary. Got to get it right!
Might I add one comment , Melissa without meaning to offend………………….Read, read, read. For a long period in my life I stopped reading . Big mistake maybe, but returning to reading with a new avarice for words and their magic has made me see tools author’s use without taking from the enjoyment of what I am reading. Quite the contrary. So my advice is to learn from other masters and then trust your own inner guide……………next step……….write.
Reading is an essential activity for any writer. There’s no doubt about that! I’ve talked about it many times here at Writing Forward. However, this post is strictly about word choice. Reading will expand your vocabulary and give you more words to choose from, so it does warrant a mention.
I’m only just starting to find my writing voice (and I’m still discovering it). I have realised recently how much I have written at length when a few words will do and how much I have decorated my prose when simple details will often suffice. Writing is hard work, as I’m discovering, and the right words will sometimes come when I am in a meditative state rather than concentrating too much. Thinking in concepts and ideas help me to draw out the right words and phrases. I recently cut a short story from about 2500 words to 1500 and had more in it than I had when I started.
Wow, that’s a great cut (2500 to 1500)! I recently edited a 1000-word blog post and got it down to 750 words. What an improvement!
I, too, like to write long, and then trim the fat as it were.
After my thesaurus/reverse dictionary, my next favorite resource is etymonline.com — it will give you the etymological history of a word and related words.
I think it’s easier to trim than it is to fill in. Thanks for sharing your etymology resource!