Basics of writingEditing

Finding the right word

From Rick:

Mark Twain said it best: “Use the right word, not its second cousin.” Although this comes from his essay “The Literary Offenses of [James] Fenimore Cooper” in which he delivers a scathing attack on that writer’s work, notably The Deerslayer, the essay is worth reading both for its wit and for the valuable lessons on writing well it delivers. Here’s one link to it:


Here, I want to deal with Twain’s offense #13. Many words in the English language have siblings (synonyms), along with several cousins, that vary from close meanings to distant ones. What prompted this post was an article in the April 29, 2013 of New Yorker magazine by John McPhee that a friend shared with me. A link to a PDF version is below. You might want to download and print in case it goes away. The article contains excellent writing advice. It also draws on the often stated concept that “writing is rewriting.”


The process of finding the right word can be split into two types of cases.

CASE I: In this situation, the author understands the concept he’s trying to convey and seeks out the best word or phrase. Your first thought might be to dive into a thesaurus, but according to McPhee, this isn’t always the best way. The main reason is that a good thesaurus will often show related words, some peripherally so, instead of direct synonyms. We have to consider that many English words have more than one direct meaning. In that regard, the thesaurus can help you narrow the choices, but you have to be careful when choosing.

Take the word “effort.” It can mean physical or mental exertion, an earnest attempt, or an achievement, and listed among its synonyms in a thesaurus are– achievement, attempt, discipline, strain, sweat, undertaking. So, saying “It was a real effort for him” doesn’t clarify if he succeeded in something or put serious work into it. Likewise, “He needed to put more effort into it” might not properly convey how much (or how little) work he put into it the task, and resorting to a thesaurus for a list of word choices might lead you to pick something inappropriate. This is why McPhee strongly suggests using a dictionary instead of, or in addition to, a thesaurus because that way you’ll get the flavor of the words rather than a list of them, and a good dictionary–as he says–will tell you how the synonyms differ from one another.

Let’s say your character is running away from something. There are many words that can narrow this action and be more specific about his reason for his leaving: flee, abscond, desert, elude, evade, bolt, retreat, depart, escape, skip (slang), split (slang).

Take the word “destroy.” It has many variants that include: exterminate, annihilate, eradicate, ruin, decimate.

In both of these cases, the word choice will depend not only on the shade of meaning you wish to convey, but also on the character’s personality and his vocabulary. I doubt that you’d hear a younger person say “eradicate” or “decimate” unless he/she was rather bright (intelligent, a geek).

In one of vampire novels, one of the young characters from an affluent suburban neighborhood was taken to a much less affluent urban setting, and I wanted him to use a word appropriate to his age group. Basically, I wanted to convey something less posh than he was used to, sort of run-down in his eyes and a place he wanted to convey his feelings about, even though it was merely an old building. Given that he was intelligent but pretending to be more street wise, I had to pick a word that he would use in the company of those he was with. I tried a thesaurus and that didn’t help. Unfortunately there was not yet a good slang thesaurus around at the time; the couple I found were woefully incomplete or seriously censored. I asked a friend of an appropriate age for help, and he suggested “ghetto,” used as an adjective. (The Urban Dictionary now has a thesaurus function and delivers the word I chose.) Here’s the dialog:

Drake squinted out the car window at the old building and the line of maybe twenty people waiting to get in. “This is the club?”

“This is the club,” Todd said as he and Jason smacked fists.

“It’s ghetto,” Drake said.

“This is Ling’s Place, where the bad boys play. You gettin’ out or don’t ya think you’re bad enough?”

(Yes, he did get out of the car and get in line.)

I probably spent more time finding that one word–le mot juste, McPhee calls it, the right or perfect word–than in writing the whole scene.

CASE II: This is the one where the writer not only doesn’t know the word he wants, but likely isn’t aware that he doesn’t have the best word (or even the right choice of words). In McPhee’s article, this is part of copyediting. He’s an intelligent man and smart enough to spot words that offer opportunity for improvement, but what if a writer has no idea that a word might be wrong? The writer might simply be vocabulary poor, or he might be so self-assured that he doesn’t think he’s made a mistake.

Step 1 is to look up ANY word you’re not sure how to spell. Do NOT rely on MS Word to make the correction. I’ve seen writers misspell a word, and when when Word offers suggested corrections, they pick the wrong word. NEVER let that happen. Always look up the correction or replacement to be sure you got it right.

Step 2 is to question any word you can’t give a clear definition for. In our example above of synonyms for “destroy,” what if “annihilate” had come to mind. You have a good idea of the meaning. You know it means to destroy or wipe out or conquer, but do you know why you chose that word? Do you know its precise meaning? Do you know the word’s origin? I find that I have a better grasp of words when I look up the origin of the word, and sometimes that helps me with spelling.

You often find synonyms in the dictionary with the word you’re looking up, along with explanations of the differences in those–and sometimes along with words confused with it. Try looking up imminent (as in imminent danger). If you misspell it in a Word document as “imanent,” you’ll find Word offering “immanent” as a corrected spelling. But that’s an entirely different word. If I spelled it as “imament,” I’d be given more choices, but it falls on me to look them up for verification. This is why Scott and I warn you against assuming that your word processor is making the right choices–especially if you know that spelling a weakness of yours. Do you know the meanings and differences of “eminent,” imminent.” and “immanent?”

The lesson here: You become a better writer by questioning everything, even when you’re 99% sure. I’ve had enough 1% cases of my own that 99% certain is no longer good enough for me. If there’s any doubt at all, I look it up.

Something else you might do is have a friend or critique partner circle words in your manuscript that might call for a better word choice. Another way in your own work is to circle phrases or sentences that seem bloated. Perhaps with a judicious word choice, you might be able to replace a phrase or a whole sentence with one or two well-chosen words. Or, as in one of McPhee’s examples, you might find that you need to do the opposite.


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