2 Tips on the Effective Use of Words

Mary Keeley

Blogger: Mary Keeley

I read a submission this week that had me spellbound. It was a how-to book. I kid you not. There are two reasons this writer’s manuscript so captured my attention: (1) the delicious word usage, and (2) the flow of the words that was as smooth as silk.   

It wasn’t the use of exotic or unusual words. Sometimes that can work against you. It doesn’t replace matured craft, and readers who have to labor repeatedly to understand a word’s meaning when they can’t grasp it from the context will become annoyed. The flow will Words_the-power-of-words-620x350be stalled, and they may put the book down forever. Here is an example of an effective use of an unfamiliar word: She fixed me with a gimlet eye and bore a hole into my soul. In its adjective form, gimlet means “able to penetrate or bore through.”

A well-chosen word can communicate something extra. For instance, friendly dog was lounging in the driveway conveys more than friendly dog was resting…sunning…napping in the driveway. We get an added sense of the dog’s personality in one simple word choice. Brilliantly tight.

Placement of words in a sentence can give them emphasis and power. In The Elements of Style authors William Strunk Jr. and E.B. White advise structuring your sentences so that the word you want to emphasize most is the last one. The period signals a pause that causes a natural emphasis on the last word. Roy Peter Clark, author of Writing Tools, agrees with this strategy and goes on to recommend placing the second word needing emphasis at the beginning of the sentence, leaving the less important details in the middle. Try this in a paragraph of your own work. You should see an improvement in clarity and smooth flow of thought.

I’m going to open this up to all of you now. Toss out a word or sentence you’re struggling with in your current work, and provide a little context for it. Hopefully some of us will be aware of the perfect word that will solve your problem.   

What choice words have you used in your writing that you rejoiced over? Chime in with before-and-after sentences you have restructured according to Strunk’s and White’s recommendation. Did you see the shift of emphasis on words?

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35 Comments

  • Context – a priest cuts through hospital red tape on the protagonist’s behalf by calling the hospital’s head of chaplaincy, who happens to be his friend.

    First version – “Old seminary classmate,” said the priest. “He has the director’s ear.”

    Modified – “Old seminary classmate,” said the priest, “who has the director’s ear.”

    Usually shorter sentences are more effective, but in this case splitting up the spoken parts with the period after “priest” puts a speed bump into the line.

    I don’t really look for or hang onto certain words. Rather, I try to follow the adage Geoffery deHavilland used in aeroplane design – “Simplicate, and add lightness.”

    (And in case you GWTW fans are wondering, yes, he was a cousin to Olivia de Havilland.)

    • Andrew, my wording is so simple. It is a struggle to be anything but.

      In our writing, do you think we should strain to be something we aren’t, or word things the way we would actually say them?

      Be real; or work on writing as an art and get fancier? And maybe that becomes our reality. Ha!

      Everything has a balance, I suppose. A little simple, a little craftier.

      • Be real, by all means. You are better at being ‘you’ than anyone else on earth.

        There’s a parallel with painting – Impressionism was formulated as the study of the effects of light as the primary visual stimulus, rather than structure. Claude Monet said it well when he considered that he was merely an ‘eye’. As far as we can know now – he painted as he saw. (And when he had eye problems – and saw ‘badly’ – he painted that!)

        Aping someone else’s style becomes something like Dumas’ iron mask’ heavy, and cruelly limiting. We may think of those we admire as our betters, but in imitation we make them our jailers. Rather a disservice to them, eh?

    • Andrew, there was no “reply” under your last comment.

      Your wording is amazing. Oh, definitely a disservice to them and ourselves.

      “We may think of those we admire as our betters, but in imitation we make them our jailers” … I know I will remember this statement forever. Thank you!

    • Mary Keeley Mary Keeley says:

      Andrew, I see your point, but we have to be careful not to sacrifice clarity for simplicity. The period in your first version provided clarity. Use of the comma in the modified version halted the flow because I had to stop and confirm which person the “who” referred to, the priest or the seminary classmate.

  • Do you recommend this type of word structure on the initial graph, or is this something to be done on the edit?

    Texan at heart, structuring my words this way is a struggle.

    Advice as this is wonderful.

    (I tried on my last two sentences! Grin!)

    Thank you!

  • Jeanne T says:

    Mary, I love playing with words, but I find my creativity to do this in my writing comes in my second or third pass through, during revisions. I (hangs her head here) have not read either of the books you mentioned, but The Elements of Style is one I’ve heard a lot about.

    Okay, I’m going to play along. What’s happening is one of my main characters is meeting with his mentor and they’re having a difficult conversation. I’m trying to figure out how to better convey how the mentor’s gaze affected Jeremy, my main character. Does this make sense?

    Blaine was silent a moment. Then, his gaze penetrated Jeremy’s exterior core. “There’s something you’re not telling me.” (spoken by Blaine)

    Looking forward to your thoughts. :)

  • Mary, I have my daughter hooked on R.M. Ballantyne books. He was (apparently) a little known but prolific Christian adventure author in the 1800s. His use of choice words is a delight (I need the dictionary for words like lugubrious), although it probably wouldn’t pass the Strunk and White test.

    I first read Strunk and White in college. I was mesmerized. Of course, everyone else thought I was a nerd. Now, I need to re-read it. Thanks for the reminder!

    • Mary Keeley Mary Keeley says:

      Meghan, how fun to discover and enjoy an older series. It says something enduring about these books when they still have the ability to hook today’s children. I hope you enjoy Strunk and White all over again.

  • Okay … here is a little something I added into my YA novel just this morning … this is two cats … grin! On my last line … I tried to work in this advice with emphasizing “avoiding” and “best” … how can I do this better?

    As Azzie passes by the hallway mirror, he turns toward it as though momentarily admiring a statue and sits down. Reflections oddly seem to be something to avoid. He looks up, down, all around, but gazing into his own eyes through the mirror is forbidden.

    “Look at yourself. It’s merely your reflection.” Sister is confused.

    “I don’t know. I know it’s me; yet instinctively, I want to hiss. Avoiding me is best.”

  • I wanted to have my readers appreciate the black and white harshness the heroine is feeling when she gives up and lets the darkness win.
    The last sentence is the one I’ve struggled with for well over a year. I hint at the object in a previous paragraph.

    “Carefully feeling through objects both hard and soft, her hand finally touched what promised freedom from her misery. She took the treasure and crept back out the open door and into the darkness.”

    Then later …

    “Sarah tried to dry her bitter tears with her sleeve. “Please God, let me be with my children. I’m sorry I wasn’t what You wanted. I’m sorry I failed everyone.”
    Tears trickled down her face as she readied the heavy treasure. “My darlings, Mama is coming…”
    Sarah closed her eyes and whispered. “God, have mercy on my soul…”

    Metal tasted like dirty ice.”

    Do I say “gun metal tasted like dirty ice. Or leave it as is? I’m hoping the way I have it now is shocking enough without having to explain that she’s got a gun. I think the simplicity of the 5 words is enough of a punch, but…?

    • Here’s an example of punch with economy:

      “Jesus wept.”

      I’d leave it as is.

    • Jennifer, I love this kind of exercise. And I always learn something. Try these small changes and see what you think.

      “Rummaging through objects both hard and soft, her hand finally touched freedom from her misery. She clutched it and crept through the open door into the darkness.”

      Then later …

      “Sarah swiped at her bitter tears. “Please God, let me be with my children. I’m sorry I wasn’t what You wanted. I failed everyone.”

      Tears trickled down her face. “My darlings, Mama is coming…”

      Sarah closed her eyes. “God, have mercy on my soul…”

      Gun metal tasted like dirty ice.”

      Cynthia here. What I did for the most part was remove words that encumbered the flow rather than propelling the reader forward through the action. And I do think if you leave the mystery sooner, it would be effective to use the word “gun” with metal. Hold off letting the reader know what it is until then. And I think the word “treasure” throws off the reader. It may not be necessary.

      I’m always surprised by how removing a word or two actually strengthens the sentence…and the punch of the scene.

    • Susan Roach says:

      Don’t put in “gun.” I got it the first time, and it was chilling.

    • Kiersti says:

      I’m certainly not an expert, but personally I really like just the “Metal tasted like dirty ice”–I still remember when I first read that line and the emotional impact of it. I understood just fine. :)

  • Perfect timing, Mary. I was just diving into my manuscript to tighten up word choices and decided to pop over here first. Now I’m armed with extra ammo. :)

  • I’m experimenting on a novel with three main characters. Each chapter is from a different POV, rotating among the three, and I’m trying to write each in a voice that matches their personality. It’s a good stretching exercise to try out different styles. The most difficult character to write for is well-educated, with a wider vocabulary and using a more complex sentence structure. I really think he’s smarter than I am.

    • Mary Keeley Mary Keeley says:

      Three POVs is quite a challenge you’ve given yourself, Phil. It sounds like your difficult character has taken on his own personality, which is a sign you are succeeding.

  • I guess what you’re really saying is:

    “Smooth as silk”
    is a much better choice of words than,
    “Slick as snot.”

  • Anna Labno says:

    Try to write with emotion to create mood. Choose specific nouns and verbs. Be open to images.I recommend not to edit your first draft. It helps to change the word order when you rewrite.Then magic happens.

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