Word Choice for Creative Writing

“Dogs” or “mastiffs”? “Beer” or “ale”? It really does matter.

Dave Farland, read by Mignon Fogarty,
November 3, 2011
Episode #298


Every author who has ever stared at a blank page knows the primary difficulty in telling a story: whatever we write begins immediately to constrict us, to constrain us, into telling a certain type of story.

In short, if I begin by describing a space battle between two fighter ships, I’ve suddenly narrowed my tale to a science fiction piece. I can’t very well turn it into a Victorian romance, or a fantasy tale set in a completely imagined world. The opening even might restrict our tone. Starting off with an adventure beat doesn’t allow me very easily to slip into a romantic scene—doing so would require a little setup. Nor does the adventure scene naturally allow me to leap into a flashback where our protagonist felt a terrible loss when his best friend moved away. Once again, we’d need more setup.

So the scenes that we begin with define and narrow the kind of story that we can tell, and at a much smaller level, our word choice does the same.

An author needs to be precise in his use of language in order to avoid confusing a reader. I like the quote from Mark Twain who is credited with saying that “The difference between the precise word and one that comes close is the difference between lightning and a lightning bug.

The lack of precision in word choice can be shown in a number of ways.

1. The writers don’t choose words that properly resonate within their genre. For example, if you’re writing a Tolkienesque fantasy, you wouldn’t send your protagonists to eat at a local “restaurant,” nor would you have them eat a “hamburger” or have them drink a “cold beer.” Those words all suggest a modern setting, like the Wendy’s just down the street from my home. Instead, you’d try to use words that evoke a fantasy setting. Your characters would go to the local “inn,” where they might “feast upon a wild swan,” while drinking “warm ale.”

2. Very often a writer uses a word that is close to what he or she means, but is not quite right. For example, you might say “she said,” thinking that a dialog tag is needed. But sometimes a dialog tag doesn’t really convey what you mean. Perhaps you might need to say “she swore.” Very often, writers will get so used to using “said,” that they will use it when the speaker is actually asking a question. “Are you going to eat that?” she said.

A similar thing might happen when you’re talking about a home. Does your character live in a manor, a mansion, a cottage, or a duplex? A wealthy character might well talk about his “summer cottage,” while a poor neighbor might consider the same building to be an “estate,” since it has its own golf course, horseback riding trails, and a private lake.

3. Sometimes a writer uses a pronoun where a noun is better. The writer might start off a chapter with: “He ran for his life.” Well, if there are three viewpoint characters in your novel, you’d better let us know up front who “he” is. So you might say “Bron” ran for his life.

[[AdMiddle]4. The author uses a group description instead of a precise description. New writers will often say that “The trees bunched together, casting deep shadows over the lonely trail.” Well, there are thousands of kinds of trees. Do you mean pines? Then say pines. Or did you mean coconut palms, or willows, or eucalyptus? Each type of tree creates a very different image. If your character is being chased by a “pack of dogs,” for heaven’s sake, tell me what kind of dogs I should be imagining. Are you talking about wolves? Dingoes? Mastiffs? Hounds? Tail-wagging Chihuahuas?

5. The author doesn’t take the connotations of words into consideration. A “denotation” is the precise meaning of a word. If I say that a girl is wearing “blue jeans,” then you get a pretty good idea of what I’m talking about. But not all blue jeans are equal. If I say that she wore Wranglers, you’ll get an even more specific image of the type of blue jeans. Sometimes that’s just not possible. If I say that she is wearing “designer blue jeans,” then you might imagine something a bit different—maybe something decorated with sequins, pre-faded, and ripped at the knees. In other words, adding the word “designer” to blue jeans gives us some different connotations. But to really get the image, you might have to spend an entire paragraph describing those jeans—how she bought them at a boutique on Rodeo Drive, spending $2000 in order to look like Pink.

6. Last of all, sometimes authors just bungle altogether, not being aware that they are using the wrong word, or have perhaps simply typed something incorrectly. When I was young, I thought that the word “enervated” meant the same as “energized.” So I confused a couple of editors before I learned that I was using the word incorrectly. I once wrote a story where I described two pigs “rutting” in a field. I meant to write the word “rooting” in a field, as in digging up the field with their snouts, not mating. In a recent novel, I had two people who were supposed to be in a “restaurant,” but I must have typed the word incorrectly, and then my spell checker automatically “fixed” my typo by inputting the word “restraint.” Hence, several test readers for the story had to wonder what kinds of restraint my characters were in. Handcuffs?

In short, try to be precise when you tell your story. Use your words carefully. We bring a tale to life by using just the right words. When you think about it, it’s a wondrous way to make a living—stringing words and prose together in such a way as to create a waking dream in the minds of our readers. It’s not like we’re providing something concrete to our readers, as if we were selling Fuji apples from our orchards, or BMW’s from our car lot. We’re selling pure imagination, and therefore our work must be all the more glorious.

The podcast was written by David Farland, who has written more than 50 books and is the author of the new book Nightingale. Find out more about Nightingale and his short story contest that offers a $1000 prize at nightingalenovel.com.


Books image, Moyan Brenn at Flickr. CC BY 2.0.