Monday, June 27, 2011

Words Matter

In the third draft - the sparkle draft -the time has come to be anal about your word choices. You want to tighten up your writing, and you want each word to be doing its job. This means writing in powerful verbs and nouns.

Yes, I could tell you that "Tracy walked stiffly into my office." But it carries more visual power to say, "Tracy stalked into my office." Or, I prefer, "Tracy invaded my office." That verb cuts my sentence down to 4 words, and not only does it tell you something about how Tracy entered, it clues you in to how the narrator feels about Tracy's entering.

The following statement might make you groan, but during the third draft, you should inspect every word of your manuscript. I spend a lot of time on verifying that I've used a word correctly, that it doesn't carry any connotations I'm unaware of, that there isn't a better word to use. Don't be afraid to look things up.

In a class I took from Susan May Warren, she shared a tip for picking the right words. I think she called them word pools. She thinks about the emotion she's wanting to convey in the scene, and writes down verbs that correspond. So if your emotion is "scared" you might pick scream, flail, thrust, jab and so forth.

It's important to pick the right nouns too, the right items to point out. Nouns that communicate your character's state of mind. Let's go back to that scene I set up earlier.

Tracy invaded my office. His steel-colored eyes matched his suit, one of the "power ensembles" he mentioned in last weekend's article.

He thrust a scrap of paper at me. "Stop what you're doing and cut a check for this amount, to this person. Don't make me ask twice."

I could tell you simply that Tracy is wearing a nice suit, but it says so much more to have the character quoting Tracy and mentioning an article. The way this is set up, I don't have tell you that the narrator has issues with her boss.

The big exception to spicing up verbs is "said." Which we'll talk about on Wednesday.

Don't forget prompt entries are due tonight at 11:59pm. I always send email confirmations, so if you've sent yours and haven't heard back from me, please check today. Don't wait for tomorrow.

Hope everyone's week is starting off well!


  1. And for any historical writers out there, you'll want to add to your always-open tabs! Checking the etymology of a word is crucial if you're writing historicals. Your 19th-century sheriff should not call someone a "punk." Your 18th-century heroine should not refer to someone as "outgoing" (yeah, just caught that one in my manuscript . . .). To get that authentic feel, you have to use words in use at the time. Thank heavens for sites that tell us when words came into use in certain ways!

    You can also check Google Books for particular phrases, if EtymOnline doesn't list one you need to know about.

  2. Great advice. I never thought about double checking my word meanings before, but it's a great idea! Thanks.

  3. Tracy is a man!?

    Isn't Tracy a girls name? Well, it is in Australia anyway. but I love what you said about double checking your words, do you know that cute means ugly in an interesting way. Funny huh?

  4. Lol. Tracy can be a man or a woman in the US, but is more traditionally a woman.

    According to my dictionary, cute means "attractive, especially in a dainty way." It can also apparently mean clever or shrewd, which I didn't realize.

  5. Ha ha:) I didn't know Tracy was a mans name in the U.S!
    P.S Thanks for all the great advice!