Writers in the Storm

A blog about writing

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December 5, 2018

Subtlety in Word Choices

by Fae Rowen

Last week I was writing a character study for my WIP. The character is persistent, never giving up, even when the cause seems lost. At times she's like a small child who keeps asking "Why?" and driving the adults around her crazy. I had more than a half dozen adjectives in my list, but something seemed lacking. I added perseverance.

On my trail walk, I thought about persistence versus perseverance. If I were in a hurry, I would have stopped at persistence. But as I mentally detailed the difference between the two words, persistence took on a more negative flavor. At home, I used the thesaurus and found these words for persistent: perseverance, tenacious, determined, obstinate, stubborn, pushy, relentless, insistent, continuing. The words for perseverance included: determination, insistence, stubbornness, doggedness, diligence, resolve, drive, purpose, tenacity, dedication, devotion, tirelessness, pushiness.

When you compare the two lists, the words are very close in meaning. But the diligence, resolve, drive, dedication, devotion and purpose in the perseverance column, convinced me that I made the right choice in labeling my character as exhibiting perseverance.

As writers, taking the time to drill down to the finer meaning of the words we choose can help us better define characters, their goals and motivation, and our stories. Think of this exercise like an artist painting a color wheel. The primary colors are placed within the wheel, then the artist must mix the paints to move from red to red-orange to orange to orange-yellow, and finally yellow. All the gradations between red and yellow are shown in the small space on the wheel.

If we became adept painters with our word choices, we can convey more depth to our readers without having to resort to telling them what we want them to know.

Let's look at another word pairing. Do you want to humble an arrogant character or do you want to humiliate him? When someone is humbled, their pride or rank is lowered. But when you humiliate a character you shame him, usually in public. That character loses self-respect and the respect of others. Again, as writers the careful choice words we use to describe the humbling or the humiliation can help us convey the feeling we want the reader to experience. There's a big difference between calling a lover a "boy toy" or a "friend" or a "sweetheart" or a "partner."

I've been guilty of using my thesaurus to find a synonym quickly. A good thesaurus can do much more than that, if we're aware of the gradations of meaning as we look for a "better" or "fresher" word. A partnership can be an association, a connection, a collaboration, or an alliance. By choosing a more descriptive word, we can subtlely convey more meaning without having to spend precious word count to explain what we're trying to say.

You don't need to be tied to a dictionary or thesaurus to be mindful of your word choices. And you don't need to do this for every word in your story. But the important words, the words that describe your characters' emotions, their character traits, the turning points, deserve extra time and thought. 

Taking time and care with critical words is like using the right tool for the job. When you have the best word to describe a situation, that word does your work better than a paragraph of explanation ever could. The pace of your story isn't slowed with exposition or back story. The reader builds and fills in details that enrich their experience and make that experience unique to each reader.

Take a few moments to think about how you could describe a plain Jane character on the first page, using one word to convey much more than the cliched plain Jane. Don't turn to a thesaurus. Picture the character. Watch her. Make up a backstory for her. Then sift through words until you find the best one to describe what you want a reader to know about this character.

You'll find this gets easier, and it will help you hone in on your characters' important traits. And an added side benefit: you'll find yourself writing fresher descriptions, combinations of words you haven't seen before.


Do you have an example of a refined word choice that you'd like to share?

Why did you choose one word over the other?



Fae Rowen discovered the romance genre after years as a science fiction freak. Writing futuristics and medieval paranormals, she jokes that she can live anywhere but the present. As a mathematician, she knows life’s a lot more fun when you get to define your world and its rules.
P.R.I.S.M., Fae's debut book, a young adult science fiction romance story of survival, betrayal, resolve, deceit, and love is now available at Amazon and Barnes and Noble.



21 comments on “Subtlety in Word Choices”

  1. I'm doing this (not all that well) on my editing pass for the current manuscript. I have a lot of red circles around words that say "Word" meaning ... find a better one.

    1. Terry, it seems to me that you are spot on. Identifying where you can "up your game" is the first step. The right word will surface.

  2. Terrific post, Fae! I think you're right: At the line-edit level, prose can become like poetry if an author uses care and deliberation in word and phrasing choice; it can really elevate a story and paint a much fuller picture. Your examples are so illustrative. Thanks for sharing!

    1. Thanks, Tiffany. I used to scoff when I heard a writer talking about agonizing for days to find the right word. Now I understand the power, even though it may be subtle, of word choices that hit the bull's eye rather than those that are merely close to the target.

  3. My (Regency Era) MC was convinced she was "useless" but the word seemed watery compared to her mindset. I discovered a synonym that would have been in use at the time. Bootless. I chose it because it was evocative and the plosive "b" matched her spiky temper.

    1. Thanks for sharing your example, and the reasoning behind your choice, jrupp25. I read regencies and I appreciate when an author finds authentic words that are from the time and convey the spirit behind the word.

  4. Fae, here are the words I worked with yesterday. Strained/labored/struggled. Carpeting/blanketing/cocooning. I chose labored and cocooning. I do use my thesaurus but only as a last resort when I can't push another word from my brain. Cute story...my SIL after the birth of her child..."The doctor had to "seduce" my labor." True.

    1. There is such a difference between carpeting, blanketing, and cocooning, M. Lee. Cocooning gives me a picture and a feeling, like a well-0chosen words can. Thanks for sharing your SIL story!

    1. Thank you, Julie. I've been spending a lot of time thinking about my WIP and deepening my craft. My writing mindset used to be akin to dumping asphalt on the road and rolling it out. But there comes a time that efficiency is not as efficient as being mindful with word choice to produce a story with more impact.

  5. Yes! This is why I love writing - we use a keyboard instead of brushes, but we watercolor paint with words - and I LOVE finding just the perfect one! Great post, Fae!

    1. You do such a great job of finding the right word, Laura. Actually, part of my musings came about because I've been lucky to get to observe you at work. Can a writer produce a good book without close attention to detail? Sure. But if we want richness to permeate our stories, like a chef, we need to look for the best ingredients.

  6. This is so very true. I've become appalled, though, at how many editors don't seem to have a grasp on the nuances of various word choices though. Granted, some readers don't know the difference between words like persistence and perseverance, so they won't GET the subtlety and those nuances won't matter to them. However, there are many who DO know the difference and WILL get it, and it deepens the story so much for them.

    1. Thanks, Dawn. Subtlety and nuance can support delightfully surprising ah-ha's for some readers. If there are others who didn't recognize the author's "heavy lifting" for the perfect word, I trust that maybe on a second reading, they'll uncover the treats that await them.

  7. Great post, Fae! A further challenge for me is to leave my minor in English behind when trying to find the right word that my deep POV character would use. Kinda fun looking at that thesaurus and going nope, nope, then maybe making up my own word.

  8. Thanks, Barb! I understand the thesaurus "treasure hunt," but I don't get why a minor in English is an obstacle to word choice. We'll have to talk about that...

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