Using your words

(First, a PSA for anyone like me who doesn’t pay attention to what day it is all the time.  Today is April Fool’s Day in the States, which means you should not trust any big news announcements made today.  A few of the blogs I regularly read had me going for a moment before I remembered.)

When I was in Prague I took a couple of train trips and, instead of reading like I would normally, I made myself sit and write about what I was seeing.  It was an interesting experiment.

One thing I found is that after about half an hour I could no longer just write descriptions of what I was seeing (a giant Brontosaurus on a building, confetti-colored graffiti on a tunnel wall), but I was instead interpreting what I was seeing (dark clouds looked ominous, barren fields were bleak and desolate).

The other thing that happened is that I started thinking about word usage once again.  I’ve already had a go at the whole show vs. tell argument and decided it’s a bit of bollocks that should only be told to the most newbie of aspiring writers.  Now I’m going to take a bit of a shot at word choice.

I’ve talked about this a bit before – that I don’t necessarily agree that you should always be specific about descriptions.  Sometimes I think it’s better to describe a tree as having a slender white trunk with golden-colored leaves than to say there was an aspen, for example.

But this little train journey had me thinking about it some more.  Because at one point when I was just describing things I wrote about some buildings that were burned and jagged, their roofs missing, vegetation growing in the crevices.  Later I just wrote about a group of dilapidated buildings.  Both could work in a story.

I think the key is to decide what your purpose in describing the buildings is.  What is the pace of the story at that point?  Do you have time to stop and provide a paragraph about what the buildings looked like?  Who is your audience?  How likely are they to know the meaning of that perfect word you’re about to use?  Will it draw them into the scene or throw them out of the story?  Does using it fit with the viewpoint in the scene?

So, it isn’t about using “the word” and showing off your vocabulary so much as it is about using the appropriate combination of words for that scene.  And sometimes that may mean a long sentence of simple words instead of that one perfect word that would sum things up so nicely.

What set me off on this idea today?  Another great post by PCW: Weak and Strong?  This one is about advice on using “weak verbs” vs. “strong verbs”, but it’s along the same lines.  I think she sums it up pretty nicely:

“What it all comes down to is that authors can’t simply apply a bunch of rules. They have to think – think about what they’re doing, what effect it has, and what effect they want it to have.”

About M. H. Lee

M.H. Lee is a speculative fiction writer currently residing in Colorado whose stories are sometimes dark, sometimes funny, sometimes darkly funny, but hopefully always thought-provoking and entertaining.
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