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Five tips to help you pick the right word 80,000 times

March 1, 2012

That title is frightening, but it’s exactly what writing a novel is. Your mileage may vary, of course. Your work may be shorter or longer, but the activity is the same. Picking the right word, over and over again, all the way through a story arc.

Sure, there’s more to it. You need a story arc that works, with some compelling subplots. Your characters should be drawn vividly enough that your readers feel like they know them and react to them–love them, hate them, empathize with them, want them dead. The setting should work and everything ought to be, at least on its face, possible.

And the way you create all of that is to pick the right word over and over again, until you’ve done it 80,000 times.

For my writing, most of the character and plot-building is done in the first draft. I don’t care a lot about getting the exact right word. But in the rewrites–when I have the discipline to not create another first draft–the importance of picking exactly the right word goes up. With each pass, more effort should go to picking words and less effort should go to building plot and fixing character issues.

Here’s an incomplete list of words to look for to help you find just the right words:

  • were. If your character were eating, were talking, were walking, were listening to the radio, could you make the same point by saying they ate, talked, walked, listened to the radio?
  • adverbs. It’s one of those “rules” of writing you hear about, killing all your adverbs. Of course, you have to use the common disclaimer “unless it works.” To boldy go works better than to go. But you should look hard at your adverbs and see if you can strengthen your work by eliminating them. If your character briskly running, maybe they should consider just running, then being out of breath. Or even sprinting.
  • I. If you’re writing in first person, you’re going to use the word I. You have to. But how often? Are you using the word I so often people notice it?
  • adjectives. The official rule for adjectives is similar to the rule for adverbs. So’s the disclaimer. Look at your adjectives and find out if you can make the same point without them. In Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, you could spend all day describing Cameron’s father’s car. But Ferris did it in two words: So choice. If you have to use adjectives, try fresh ones. Everyone’s heard fire engine red and lipstick red. How about speeding-ticket red?

  • Short verbs strung together. He was going to be sleeping in the afternoon, exhausted from staying up with the baby. You could make it tighter by saying He’d sleep in the afternoon, exhausted…

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