Friday, April 26, 2013

Choosing Words Wisely by Dawn Lairamore

Like a lot of writers, I’m fond of my thesaurus. I feel like I’m getting repetitive if I use the same words over and over again, so I start looking for new ways to convey what I want to say. There’s danger in this. Stephen King, in his memoir On Writing, states the first word that comes to mind is usually the right choice. We’re striving for clarity and smooth reading, after all. Forcing yourself to make word choices that aren’t natural or intuitive can really bog down your writing.

I think a good example of this is a work by Ernest Vincent Wright. Now, I have to give credit where credit is due. Mr. Wright was obviously a man up to an enormous challenge, and I think he must have had a great sense of humor to boot. Back in the 1930s, he decided he was going to write an entire novel without ever using the letter “e”—the most frequent letter in the English language. Mr. Wright claimed he actually tied down the “e” key on his typewriter so he wouldn’t accidentally use it. I imagine he had to keep his thesaurus handy, since many of his first word choices were probably off limits. (Past tense also threw him for a loop—“walked” had to become “did walk,” etc. Nor could he use the words “he,” “she,” or “they.”) And Mr. Wright succeeded at this incredibly ambitious task, publishing Gadsby: A Story of Over 50,000 Words Without Using the Letter “E” in 1939. But did his story suffer from the limited word choice? You be the judge. Here are the opening paragraphs:

If Youth, throughout all history, had had a champion to stand up for it; to show a doubting world that a child can think; and, possibly, do it practically, you wouldn't constantly run across folks today who claim that "a child don't know anything." A child's brain starts functioning at birth; and has, amongst its many infant convolutions, thousands of dormant atoms, into which God has put a mystic possibility for noticing an adult's act, and figuring out its purport.
Up to about its primary school days a child thinks, naturally, only of play. But many a form of play contains disciplinary factor. "You can't do this," or "that puts you out," shows a child that it must think, practically, or fail. Now, if, throughout childhood, a brain has no opposition, it is plain that it will attain a position of "status quo," as with our ordinary animals. Man knows not why a cow, dog, or lion was not born with a brain on a par with ours; why such animals cannot add, subtract, or obtain from books and schooling, that paramount position which Man Holds today.
But a human brain is not in that class. Constantly throbbing and pulsating, it rapidly forms opinions; attaining an ability of its own; a fact which is startlingly shown by an occasional child "prodigy" in music or school work. And as, with our dumb animals, a child's inability convincingly to impart its thoughts to us, should not class it as ignorant.
Upon this basis I am going to show you how a bunch of bright young folks did find a champion; a man with boys and girls of his own; a man of so dominating and happy individuality that Youth is drawn to him as is a fly to a sugar bowl. It is a story about a small town. It is not a gossipy yarn; nor is it a dry, monotonous account, full of such customary "fill-ins" as "romantic moonlight casting murky shadows down a long, winding country road." Nor will it say anything about tinklings lulling distant folds; robins carolling at twilight, nor any "warm glow of lamplight" from a cabin window. No. It is an account of up-and-doing activity; a vivid portrayal of Youth as it is today; and a practical discarding of that worn-out notion that "a child don't know anything."

If you’re interested in reading further, the entire novel can be read here. I’ll confess, I’ve never made it past chapter one.

What are your best tips when it comes to word choices?

photo credit: etharooni via photopin cc


  1. I know lots of writers often make the statement that we shouldn't use words or aspects of speech that we as the writer wouldn't organically use.

    But I have to disagree with that.

    Because there are things our characters(Especially certain types of antagonists or anti-heroes)HAVE to say, that just aren't how we, as the writer, would say them.

    A police officer is going to see certain aspects of a crime FAR differently than a lay civilian would.

    Scientists are going to use terms and information that isn't common chat for people outside the realm of scientific culture.

    That's NOT the writer being pretentious.

    It's the writer recognizing that the further characters are from US, the more we have to stretch our use of language, and not just in narrative, but dialogue, too.

    In my forthcoming MG novel, the antagonist speaks in a rough, brash way, but that's NOT how I talk, and while I'd concede we have some overlap in personality, my antagonist is no more me than than the protagonist is, and the story hasn't suffered because neither sound like me, in the contest of this posts's topic. IMHO.

    I think when it comes to word choice, you have to write what's right for the characters and the story, even if you wouldn't use certain words organically in conversation, keeping in mind revision is inevitable anyway, and you first just have to write the first draft and go from there.

    For instance, one of the stories I'm working on now involves a character who's views often are FAR from my own, so it wouldn't make any sense for him to speak or make choices I would make.

    He's NOT me, and despite all the heresay and lore about writers are "Always" all the characters, for some of us, there are frankly DEGREES of truth to that, some more red hot than others, enough said.

    You can embody the spirit of characters as the writer, which is key to convey the story in a way to keep readers engaged, but that doesn't mean they're your alter egos or subversive wish fulfillment, not that I'm denying there's some truth to that, either.

    I'm just saying to recognize that there are times our characters are going to phrase something that while isn't natural for US, it is for THEM, and we (Writers AND readers) have to respect that.

  2. Absolutely!! Good point--voice is definitely a consideration in choosing your words wisely.

  3. Nowadays, Mr. Wright would probably end up writing a blog: "12 Months Without Es." (Couldn't be "A Year," because that's got a jolly old e in it.")

  4. You know, I thought about writing this blog post without E's--yeah, don't have that kind of time on my hands. I like my thesaurus but wouldn't want to spend hours and hours and hours with it...

  5. Having adventures with words is good for the brain, like doing crossword puzzles and perusing the dictionary. But, like crossword puzzles, the first word that comes to mind isn't always the right one. I say write what comes, but read it back before sending it to an editor. I find breaking the writing flow by trying to find a perfect word makes a disruption, taking me out of the story and back into the real world. But I have definitely returned to a MS and discovered the words used were NOT the best or even right ones and, out of the writing stream, I can fish for better.

  6. You can read it there too, at the Internet Archive (the original Wetzel edition)? Or better yet, take the time to read my essay on the lipogram (and its author) at Amazon's Kindle Store.

    Did you know I'm republishing author Wright's first work, The Wonderful Fairies of the Sun, in a matter of days?


Thanks for adding to the mayhem!