Here's part 2 of Barbara Ardinger's informative aricle about selecting the correct words. Part 1 was posted on April 5, 2010. Barbara is a master at selecting the right words so if you're in need of an editor, please check out her services. Visit her at: BarbaraArdinger.com
Writing the Right Words - Part 2
The French have a phrase for what I’m talking about: le mot juste. The right, perfect, appropriate word. No matter what I’m writing—even this blog—I’m looking for the right words. Occasionally I turn to the thesaurus, but using the thesaurus can lead to other detours on the road to writing the right words, especially for inexperienced authors. We get too many choices! My guess is that it’s the thesaurus that leads my authors down a wordy primrose path. It gets them into trouble. It’s gotten me into trouble, too. When I was in high school, I was the only member of the creative writing club to have a new story every week. One story—now remember, I was a 15-year-old girl living in suburban St. Louis, Missouri—was about a woman in Alaska who was being stalked. She narrated the story. She did a lot of thinking. I dove right into Roget: “think, reflect, cogitate, deliberate, contemplate, meditate, ponder, muse, ruminate, speculate” … well, you get the idea. I used nearly every synonym. Then I came to “opine.” All these years later, I can still hear a friend’s voice: “Opine???” As I know now, ordinary people seldom opine. Judges, maybe; politicians, perhaps; philosophers, indubitably. So nowadays I tell, beg, order, and plead with my authors to stay out of the thesaurus. The synonyms, I tell them, are never exact. There are always shades of meaning. That’s exactly why English has such a big vocabulary.
When I was writing a book review (The Throne in the Heart of the Sea) for Feathered Quill a couple days ago, I wanted to characterize the way the prophet Elijah spoke to the people. First I used “preached.” Not what I wanted. He did more than preach. I’ve always thought Elijah was a nasty old man, so I tried “harassed.” Still not right. It seemed too active, as if he were chasing them while he was yelling at them. I broke down and opened my thesaurus. “Harangued.” Le mot juste.
As we endeavor to write the right words, we also need to keep learning new words. One way to do this is by reading good writing, both fiction and nonfiction, by authors recognized as literate and skillful. Watch the ways they put words together. Look at how their sentences are constructed. Do they slavishly follow the rules of grammar and usage we learned in our eighth-grade English class? Do they ever break the rules? For what purpose? In what contexts? What’s the effect? Finally, there’s a perfectly splendid web site called A.Word.A.Day that we can subscribe to and receive a new word via email every day. Subscription is free. www.wordsmith.org Sign up and learn new words and read the thought for the day. That’s a good way to get more right words and become a smarter writer.