January 21st, 2005

Stargate Monuments

Word Choice

marycrawford asked Today, randomly, I want to know about words. Do you have words you love to use? Words you would never use? Words that sneak up on you like thieves and which you have to excise from the manuscript? Words that conjure up a world for you?

In a word, yes. ;) Choosing the right word, the word that means what you think it means and not something else, is the basic element of word choice. But choosing the right word for the moment, the word that's not only going to convey the correct information to the reader, but also the right feel, the right image, the right mood, is the fun part. Sometimes it might be a very formal word or a technical word, and sometimes it might be a vulgar word, but if it's right, it's right.

Also, when most people read, they tend to assign the most forceful meaning to a word. For example, if you say "he punched him," most people visualize a full force punch to the face, not a light punch on the arm. That's why word choice, especially in say, sex scenes, is incredibly important.

For a general example, there's the word "cringe." It's defined as "1. To shrink back, as in fear; cower. 2. To behave in a servile way; fawn." so "cringe" has connotations relating to cower, cowardly, servile, etc. It's not a word you want to use for a character who is not "cowering" or acting in a servile way, but who is just reacting to something frightening or disgusting. My thesaurus lists "cower," "shrink," "recoil," "wince," and "flinch" as synonyms, but of those, only "cower" and "shrink" have the same feel, though "shrink" isn't as much of an implied slur on character. Its meaning in that context is "To draw back instinctively, as from something alarming" but because of the other meanings, there's also a feel or image of a person making himself smaller in fear, which gets us back to "cower" or "cringe." "Recoil," though it's a synonym for "shrink" gives a visual image of someone drawing back in disgust or fear, but there's much less of a character judgement. There's no implication of making yourself smaller, there's just an implication of rapid backward movement. "Wince" and "flinch" are more often used for people in pain, so depending on what the situation is that you're describing (the sight the person is recoiling from is so awful as to be painful to look at) those words might be even more appropriate.

Not all words have the same connotations to all people, so it's an area where you basically have to go with your gut instinct. But if your gut instinct seems uninformed on a particular word, looking up the definition and the synonyms and their definitions can help.