Finding the Perfect Word (Or Not)

You hear a lot of writing advice about how you should be precise in your language.  Use the best possible word for what you’re trying to describe.  Don’t settle for three words when one will do.  Be unique.  Be specific.  There’s a word out there to describe pretty much anything.

And that’s true.  There probably is a word out there to describe everything.  The number of color names in the English language is likely in the thousands these days.

But the problem is readers read without a dictionary sitting at their elbow.  And people don’t always know the words you think they do.  Which means if you do find the “perfect” word to describe something and you rely on that word to carry the weight of your description you may fail spectacularly if the reader doesn’t know the meaning of your perfect word.

I took the first ten pages of the new novel (which is basically done except for some outstanding beta feedback-yay!) to critique group last night.  In the first paragraph I describe some animals as lithe.

(Don’t ask me how to pronounce that word, but I know it when I see it.)

I was using it in the “effortlessly graceful” sense of the word.  To me it means a creature that’s light on its feet and most likely slender.

One of the members of the critique group didn’t know that word.  As a result they pictured something more akin to a buffalo.

So I failed in my description because I tried to use a less common word.

Elsewhere in those ten pages I used other imagery that should’ve conveyed long-legged, fast animals.  But the problem was I started with a word that isn’t known by everyone and that screwed my reader up.  (And like most readers, this person used other clues in the story to decide what that word must mean.  Person on a horse hunting a stampeding herd of ??  means they must be hunting buffalo.)

A few pages later we had the same issue.  This time I used the word “chuffed” in the sense of “to produce noisy exhalations” to describe the actions of a horse.  That one didn’t work for this reader either because they weren’t familiar with the term.  Another reader, who reads a lot of fantasy as well, knew exactly what it meant and we both imitated the sound at about the same moment.

It’s a balance you have to strike as an author.  You want to be as precise as possible but you have to also keep in mind your intended audience.  (And to a certain degree simpler words=more accessible to more readers…)

I think where I come out on this is that where the word is crucial for understanding I’ll try to default to commonly used or known phrases.  If it’s just adding flavor to the scene and isn’t essential, then I can use a lesser known word.  Those that get it will cruise on by and for those that don’t it won’t derail the story.

So, in this case, I dropped lithe but kept chuffed.

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.
This entry was posted in General Musings, My Writing, Writing and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.