Fiction writing: Finding the right word

Mark Twain said, “Use the right word, not its second cousin.” He also said, “The difference between the right word and the almost right word is the difference between lightning and a lightning bug.”

I couldn’t agree more. When I line edit a manuscript, I typically change many words to ones I think are better ones. The author can accept or reject these changes. I hope they will accept them or find one that’s even better—the quintessentially right word. After I’ve made quite a few of these changes, I suspect that the writer used the first word that came to mind. Nothing wrong with doing that in a first draft if the words flowed from a writer’s figurative pen in a rush of creativity. But the writer must, must, must slowly and carefully review and revise that first draft. One thing to look for is words that could be stronger and more precise in their meaning. Most words have a number of synonyms. Use a thesaurus and consider each of those synonyms to see which one most closely communicates what you want to say.

Tip: When you review your writing, look for only one thing at a time, not for everything that could be improved. You could look for weak and/or imprecise words in your first review.

Tip #2: Many of the words I change are anemic action verbs. For instance, instead of writing “Susan walked across the room,” you could say, “Susan flounced across the room.” Remember the old adage “Show, don’t tell”? Weak verbs such as walked only tell what Susan did. A word like flounced shows what she did.

Paul Thayer
Thayer Literary Services

Paul Thayer is a full-time professional book editor with more than 35 years of experience. During that time he worked in the trenches of the real world of writers, editors, and publishers. He uses his extensive knowledge to help writers who still have a lot to learn, offering them critiques and line editing of their work.

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