On Finding the Right Words

12 Oct

Last week when I wrote “Seduction” I was kind of agonizing over “finding the right words”.  I’m glad most folks thought it worked out, but I actually want to clarify what I really meant when I said this.

It’s nit-picky and you might think I sound perhaps a tad bit obsessive afterwards, lol, but here it goes.

What I Mean By “Finding the Right Words”

It’s kind of hard to explain, but when I write–and especially so with these 100-word shorts–I try to pick words that play off each other and resonate together on a whole.  I aim to create synergy.

With “Seduction” there were a few words I kept debating whether to use like “advanced”, “lost” and “stepped”.  It sounds silly but I spent a good half hour going back and forth between alternatives for those three and I’m still not sure if I like those word choices, haha.  For example, with “advanced” I wanted to use “outstretched” instead to contribute to the notion that the mist had arms, of sorts (hinted at, perhaps not so successfully, by the word “tendrils”).  The idea was that the mist wanted to use these arms to “embrace” Madeline with, but I didn’t think “outstretched” was actually compatible with the “breath” imagery I was also using to convey the nature of the mist.  (“Advance” may not be all that compatible, either, but again, this is why I felt iffy about this story–or more like snippet–in the first place.)

That’s how I felt about just one of the three words I mentioned.  I won’t go into the other two, but I hope you can see where I’m going with this.

For me, going back to make sure I’m choosing the right words is almost like trying to tune a string instrument and putting your fingers in the right place so that when you start striking chords or playing songs it vibrates in a way that amplifies all the notes being played.  When a note is in tune and you pluck or otherwise play it, you can actually “feel” it ring clearly through your fingers.  If it’s a little bit flat or sharp, it feels kind of fuzzy.  (I played viola up through the start of college, if you’re wondering where this is coming from.)

I don’t know how else to describe it, but I feel the same way about choosing words that work, or don’t work, well together.  I get my initial impressions and attempts on to the page then go back to “fine-tune” the story so it all works together, hopefully resulting in resonance (on a smaller scale) and synergy (on a whole) when all is said and done.  I don’t always succeed, though I always try to.

Synergy on a Broader Scale

Even with long stories, everything contributes to creating synergy: the characters, settings, themes, events, etc.  I think the more words you put into a story, the harder it gets to practice this consistently.  (It takes a lot of thought!)  I don’t think I could explain how it happens on a whole on the scale of a novel, but choosing the right words seems to play a big role in helping to link all these elements together.

So that’s what I’m learning how to do.  I hope that makes sense.

Do you try to accomplish the same or a similar kind of thing in your stories?

If so, how do you go about it?

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13 Responses to “On Finding the Right Words”

  1. Stephen A. Watkins October 12, 2011 at 10:12 AM #

    That’s very interesting.

    For as rigorous and analytical as I usually am… I must admit that finding the right word, for me, is typically a matter of intuition – and in part that comes from having a fairly wide vocabulary that I actually try to use in practice in both my writing and speech. (Although, try implies a conscious decision to use my full vocabulary, whereas in fact it’s really happening at a subconscious level – my mind uses the words because they’re there. I feel no remorse about using less common words.)

    I don’t talk about it much, but I occassionally dabble in poetry – and my writing style has in the past been described as “flowery”. I revel in extended metaphor and alliteration. These things just come naturally for me, I guess.

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    • Tiyana October 12, 2011 at 2:19 PM #

      I think for the most part it is very much an intuitive thing, choosing the right words, but for whatever reason last week’s story was more difficult to put together than some of my other ones. I didn’t want to spend too long on it, either, though I wonder what I would have come up with if I spent more time on it… Though, I’m sure it can never hurt to know lots of words!

      Poetry seems more in line with what I described–not necessarily in that I’m trying to be flowery or anything but just making sure that all the figurative language works together. (I am reminded now of when you talked about Catherynne M. Valente on your blog, heh, ’cause she does this well.)

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      • Stephen A. Watkins October 13, 2011 at 8:40 AM #

        Yes she does. I may at times wax poetic… but I don’t quite have that level of skill or facility with words. It “comes naturally”… but not that naturally.

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  2. deshipley October 12, 2011 at 12:04 PM #

    I haven’t played a string instrument since I decided my piano fingers were too dear to callus on guitar, but I know what you mean about the importance of word rightness.

    There’s a lot of subtlety in synonyms — (when to say “big”? When would “huge” work better?) — and when you’re trying to most accurately convey a particular idea, a matter like the “advanced” vs “outstretched” example you presented can indeed make a world of difference.

    To piggyback off of Stephen, a wide vocabularly in an invaluble writer tool. The more words you know, the closer you can get to best saying what you mean in a way that strikes that chord you’re looking for. And if you haven’t got the words handy in your head, grab a thesaurus; it lives to serve. Nothing wrong with a little writerly flower power. (:

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    • Stephen A. Watkins October 12, 2011 at 1:38 PM #

      Yeah… it’s funny, though… but I’ve found that at times I have tone back my use of vocabulary. Like I said, using it comes natural for me. I have to be conscious about using a pared-down version, in order to improve readability.

      The ideal readability level, for a mass-market piece of literature, is actually pretty low on the “grade-level” scale… I think I read once it’s around something like 6th or 9th grade or something.

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    • Tiyana October 12, 2011 at 3:39 PM #

      Oh trust me, the thesaurus is already a close friend of mine 😉 Even so, I just wasn’t finding words that “fit like a glove” for this story. I feel like the problem was partially word choice and maybe even some sentence structure (reordering words), though it was also a matter of choosing words and phrases that complemented each other. Connotations played a role, too, which I think is part of that subtlety factor you mentioned.

      In any case, between what you and Stephen brought up, I think this gives me plenty of things to consider with future stories. 🙂

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  3. Luke Raftl October 12, 2011 at 5:26 PM #

    You’re very wise, Tiyana. I too have spent hours debating the use of one word or phrase, as fine as it is, because it just doesn’t capture exactly what I want it to capture. I often start a piece with an image in my mind of the perfect finished article. It’s unformed, but the general ‘feel’ of the piece is so strong … and then unfortunately I am left grappling with the incredibly limiting English language to fulfill this lofty goal.

    We can’t get them all, I suppose! Treating a piece of writing as a holistic being, where everything relates and plays off everything else, is important in all our best work. How I wish it were just a bunch of pretty words in a row!

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    • Tiyana October 13, 2011 at 9:25 AM #

      Exactly! It can be frustrating when this happens.

      “We can’t get them all, I suppose!”

      Yeah, I guess that’s true, and that’s probably where the frustration comes from, heh, having to accept this.

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  4. Anthony Lee Collins October 12, 2011 at 9:43 PM #

    Music is a very good analogy (I was a musician also). Some things you can learn from the dictionary and the style manual and the thesaurus, but sometimes it does go by ear. If a word feels wrong, I won’t use it, no matter what else might be in its favor.

    I try not to obsess too much, though. As my father used to say, the most difficult types of writing are poetry and humor, because those are the only two where one wrong word can ruin a piece. Every other type of writing can survive a less-than-perfect word or two.

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    • Tiyana October 13, 2011 at 9:37 AM #

      That’s true; both really have to be “pitch perfect” to work out. With a novel…I guess there’s more leeway, perhaps due to its length.

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  5. T. S. Bazelli October 13, 2011 at 10:07 AM #

    I think you’ve done a good job of explaining something that’s usually very intuitive, or often unconsciously done when it comes to writing. I do think there is a right word, but I don’t always manage to capture it, and It’s one of the things I’m working on hehe. Lately I’ve been reading poetry and song lyrics to challenge myself to think differently. And the writers I enjoy best, manage to accomplish it – to use the perfect words to evoke an scene or emotion, and layer meaning all at once. Sometimes it means less words rather than more.

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    • Tiyana October 13, 2011 at 1:01 PM #

      That’s a good idea. I tend not to read in those mediums (and I’m actually horrible at recalling lyrics, haha), so perhaps I should give it a try!

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  6. Jay Noel October 13, 2011 at 9:16 PM #

    I choose words that makes reading flow well. I don’t like it when an author gets too wordy, or uses a more obscure word (making it obvious that they found it in a thesaurus).

    When I’m reading, I want don’t want to trip over strange or uncommon words. Simplicity is key.

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