The economy of words and choosing the right word

Lately I’ve been writing a lot of haiku.   (Yes, without the ‘s’ to make it plural; it’s Japanese.)  In seventeen syllables, there isn’t room for filler.   Every single word gets picked for the meaning it conveys.  The right word makes all the difference in how effective the poem is.    Maybe this is old news to people.  Maybe this is the most basic idea ever.  We’ve heard it in our intro to creative writing classes over and over.

But simplicity of the concept aside, I’ll argue that picking the right word is sometimes one of the most difficult things that a writer can do.  To stop and pick the right word can often interrupt the rushing flow of the rough draft as it finally breaks the dam of writer’s block.   To pick the right word requires a writer to have an extensive vocabulary to choose from.   It requires one to have an understanding of connotation, of subtleties, of aural aesthetics.

For example, you could say that “the young man is hot”.   Okay, how is he hot?  Is it from the weather or exercise?  Is it his good looks?  Is it a reference to a string of successes?  The word “hot” carries multiple connotations.  Words with multiple meanings are useful in puns or double entendres, but if you are going for a single idea, you want to stick with a word that conveys a narrower meaning.   “The young man was sweaty/flushed” could refer to exertion.   “The young man is cute/sexy/handsome” would certainly convey a message about his looks.   Being specific about your meaning, and choosing the right word, allows for a greater economy of words.

Unnecessary words get between you and your reader.   Good writing should flow without filler bogging it down.  Nobody is perfect, of course, but you can train yourself to watch out for the words you don’t need.

A few tips:

  • Use “ly” words (adverbs, for the most part) sparingly.   There are other ways to say things that often convey the meaning without that awkward syllable.  The repetition of the “ly” sound might work in poetry, but in prose it wearies a reader.   Unintentional repetition makes the reader aware of a lack of professionalism.
  • Don’t over-describe.  A laundry list of adjectives loses the reader’s interest.  Words are about actions, about ideas.  Sometimes it doesn’t matter what your heroine is wearing as long as she’s getting the job done.  Sometimes it does matter what she’s wearing, but you don’t have to describe it in detail so thick that it distracts from the flow of the narrative.  That gives the reader a sense of “where were we?”  and the reader is the one person you don’t want to lose.
  • Get a good thesaurus.  If you want to use a word such as “hot”, the thesaurus can offer you alternatives with narrower meanings.   I do have one caution about the thesaurus, however.  Be careful that you do not OVERuse this tool.  Saying what you mean is more important than trying to impress readers with big or obscure words.
  • Make yourself aware of connotation.  To do this, you have to read a lot.  I doubt this is that big a problem for most of us, but expanding one’s library expands the vocabulary as well as awareness of the verbal world in which we all live.

Now I don’t claim to be an expert, and I’m certainly not saying that this is the ONE TRUE WAY.   There is no one true way for the very personal experience of writing.   But if I can get some thought and discussion going, maybe it can help everyone, and that’s something I feel is important.

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