“When you’re drowning you don’t think, I would be incredibly pleased if someone would notice I’m drowning and come and rescue me. You just scream.” ― John Lennon
“But it is wonderful what mischief may be done by only two words.” ― Sir Walter Scott
“Without knowing the force of words, it is impossible to know more.” ― Confucius
Without words, writing is nothing. Literally. Just space; a vacuum; a void. All physical things require atoms; likewise, all writing requires words. (We could zoom in further and compare protons to letters, electrons to punctuation marks, and further still: quarks could be the specks of ink on a page that make up the letters, the Higgs boson could be… well, let’s not go there.)
But returning to the simile: as writers, words are our atoms, from which we can create anything we choose, from the sparsest Haiku about snow to a dense, thousand-page tome about what it feels like to be a daisy. The possibilities are infinite and the finished piece of writing can be benign or destructive or emotive or sublime or none of those things. But how do you know which words to choose?
Whether you are writing prose, fiction, poems or a letter of resignation, the words you choose will be crucial in getting your message across and provoking some kind of (hopefully desired) reaction on the part of the reader. And the meaning you wish to convey relies on the words you choose.
Words To Change The Meaning
The woman sat on the park bench.
It is a perfectly good sentence in that it conveys meaning and conforms with grammatical norms (neither of which is necessarily essential in all circumstances, of course). The point is that most people who understand English will understand the sentence.
Although the sentence conveys meaning, it doesn’t do much else. It doesn’t make you feel anything. It wouldn’t be a particularly striking way to start a novel, for instance (although judging novels by their opening lines is surely only the folly of the ludicrously impatient). It is possible that within the context of a longer piece of writing (whether poetry or prose) this simple sentence could indeed convey further layers of meaning. But as a standalone piece of writing – for that is all you’re getting here – it could be viewed as a little flat, wouldn’t you say?
So what if we disregard the word “sat” and choose a different word? Can we use the power of words to create something more than the rather ordinary image of a woman sitting on a park bench? I think we can.
The woman puked on the park bench.
Okay, now we’re getting somewhere. Although we still know next to nothing about the woman, suddenly we are being led down various potential paths or enquiries. Is the woman ill? Has she been drinking all day after the breakdown of a relationship and is feeling the effects? Has she recently emerged from the hospital on the other side of the park after a bout of chemo? If a woman sits on a bench, it’s not at all intriguing, in isolation at least (it might be if she’d just murdered someone and armed police officers were telling her to lie on the ground; in that scenario, the woman simply sitting on the park bench could have various connotations). But now the woman has puked on the bench, and that’s not something you expect to see every day (in most areas of the UK at least).
Of course, there are numerous choices a writer can make in relation to the verb in this sentence. Read the following and pause after each one to give yourself the chance to think about what (if anything) it makes you feel, what images it brings to mind and what it makes you think about the woman.
The woman died on the park bench.
The woman sobbed on the park bench.
The woman thawed on the park bench.
The woman protested on the park bench.
The woman masturbated on the park bench.
The feelings and thoughts the different sentences elicited from you are not all that important but I presume they will have differed somewhat between “died” and “masturbated”. The point I’m trying to make here is that the word choice in this very basic sentence can significantly change the meaning, imagery and connotations of the writing. And this is just one sentence floating on its own, devoid of the camaraderie of fellow sentences and the context they would bring.
How To Pick The Right Words
Attempting to pick the “right” words is a tricky thing and how much time you spend on the process will no doubt depend on what you’re attempting to write and whether you are trying to do it in your lunch hour at work or on a six-week-long writing retreat with minimal interruptions. How much time you decide to devote to the choice of the words you use will also come down to whether you want to finish what you’re writing before you die. If you are writing a limerick, you’ll probably be okay. If you’re attempting to write the next Moby Dick or Ulysses, well, maybe don’t spend all day considering the perfect verb or adjective in every sentence.
There are many writers who don’t consciously pick words at all, they let them flow out like a splurging torrent from their subconscious or unconscious. And that technique certainly has its merits from a time-saving point of view. Jack Kerouac and his influential 1957 novel On the Road is the oft-cited example of banging out the words without too much conscious thought (though of course, that notion does a disservice to the end product, which is both engaging and masterful).
Ultimately, unless you are going to check a dictionary or thesaurus every two minutes, the words you choose will come from your existing vocabulary. And, as everyone is told from the age of one, the best way to improve your vocabulary is to read. A lot. And to read great novels and poems, and indeed great essays and works of non-fiction. How do you know which works are “great”? The ones that have endured through the decades and centuries.
Of course, that’s not to say there isn’t a place for popular fiction (just because something is popular and modern, it doesn’t mean it’s not great or that it doesn’t at least have the potential to one day be classified as such).
Speaking of popular fiction, one of the most popular such authors of them all is Stephen King, who has written dozens of books that have become worldwide bestsellers. If you are an aspiring writer who wants to gain any level of popularity, it pays to take note of what he says about the craft of writing. And, luckily for us all, he’s written a book on the very subject: On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft. As you might expect from an author of his legendary storytelling prowess, the book is eminently readable. And it is crammed full of useful gems for new and ambitious writers. We’ll refer to the book regularly on this site (but you should certainly read it yourself).
On vocabulary and word choice, King writes: “Remember that the basic rule of vocabulary is use the first word that comes to your mind, if it is appropriate and colorful.”
Assuming you have read a good number of great (or at least good) books, words will usually come to your mind without too much effort. But how do you know if the words you write are “appropriate and colourful” (sorry, Stephen, I’ve got to put the “u” back in!)? Well, sometimes you just know. Sometimes you read a sentence or couplet you have written and it sounds right. It’s especially useful to read out loud at this point as this will literally allow you to assess the sound of the words you have chosen.
As the highly influential and brilliant author Ursula K Le Guin states in the opening of her exceptional guide to the craft of writing, Steering the Craft: A 21st-Century Guide to Sailing the Sea of Story, “The sound of the language is where it all begins. The test of a sentence is, Does it sound right?”
It is a simple concept but it works. You can often tell when your writing sounds right. Of course, it tends to be easier to recognise when things sounds wrong, when a word or a group of words in a given piece of writing sounds off in some way.
When you read your work (out loud), ask yourself questions about it: Are the words clunky or jarring? Are they dull or tepid? Do they fit with the narrator or character? Or do they evoke such a reaction from your psyche that they simply cannot be bettered? The answers to these (and other) questions will come down to your judgement, something that can be honed by – you’ve guessed it – reading great works of fiction, poetry and prose.
If you’ve done much writing (or reading about writing) you will no doubt have heard of the passive voice. And writing in the passive voice often leads to writing that lacks urgency and power. In essence, the passive voice shows something being done to someone/something; the active voice shows someone/something doing something. Which is usually more interesting.
For a more detailed explanation of the passive voice (and plenty more besides), we thoroughly recommend you visit Emma Darwin’s excellent website, This Itch of Writing. The site is a treasure trove of information for aspiring authors. Darwin is an author of fiction and non-fiction and is a creative writing mentor and teacher. The generosity she shows on her site is laudable and she covers all manner of useful topics from overcoming writer’s block, to editing your novel, to getting published and loads more.
Here are a couple of examples of sentences using the active voice and their equivalents using the passive voice:
- Active: Conan attacked the renegade. Passive: The renegade was attacked by Conan
- Active: The swallow chased the butterfly. Passive: The butterfly was chased by the swallow.
- Active: Maria trekked across the tundra. Passive: The tundra was trekked across by Maria.
- Active: The terrified explorer fired at the marauding polar bear. Passive: The marauding polar bear was fired at by the terrified explorer.
Okay, you get the idea. Hopefully you will agree that the active voice produces a stronger, more immediate image than the passive. The takeaway here is, unless there is a specific reason otherwise, stick to the active voice. One specific reason for using the passive voice could be that you are writing dialogue spoken by a character who talks in the passive voice, for instance. But that might get a bit wish-washy if it continues for a whole novel, so even in that scenario, it might be worth limiting the passive voice.
Don’t Get Hung Up
Ultimately, unless you are lucky enough to be blessed with the touch of genius, you will not pick all the right words all the time. But don’t fret too much about that because you can tidy things up when you edit your work (something we’ll cover in detail in other articles). If you are writing a short story or anything longer, if you spend too much time trying to ensure you have the perfect word in every sentence, you’ll never get to the end of your story. And breaking the creative flow to consult a thesaurus is often far more detrimental to the end product than including the odd “wrong” word.
Of course, if you want to jog your memory for an evasive word, a quick trip to wordhippo.com can’t hurt. But ultimately, you’ll be going back over your work later and any words that stick out as being incongruous or non-specific or just plain wrong can be picked up at that point. In the meantime, get on with the story and let the creative juices flow because ultimately the words you choose don’t matter if you never finish your story or poem.