25 Things You Should Know About Word Choice

This post, by Chuck Wendig, originally appeared on his terribleminds site on 3/6/12.

1. A Series Of Word Choices

Here’s why this matters: because both writing and storytelling comprise, at the most basic level, a series of word choices. Words are the building blocks of what we do. They are the atoms of our elements. They are the eggs in our omelets. They are the shots of liquor in our cocktails.

[Publetariat Editor’s Note: strong language after the jump]

Get it right? Serendipity. Get it wrong? The air turns to arsenic, that cocktail makes you puke, this omelet tastes like balls.

2. Words Define Reality

Words are like LEGO bricks: the more we add, the more we define the reality of our playset. “The dog fucked the chicken” tells us something. “The Great Dane fucked the chicken” tells us more. “The Great Dane fucked the bucket of fried chicken on the roof of Old Man Dongweather’s barn, barking with every thrust” goes the distance and defines reality in a host of ways (most of them rather unpleasant). You can over-define. Too many words spoil the soup. Find the balance between clarity, elegance, and evocation.

3. The “Hot And Cold” Game

You know that game — “Oh, you’re cold, colder, colder — oh! Now you’re getting hot! Hotter! Hotter still! Sizzling! Yay, you found the blueberry muffin I hid under the radiator two weeks ago!” –? Word choice is like a textual version of that game where you try to bring the reader closer to understanding the story you’re trying to tell. Strong, solid word choice allows us to strive for clarity (hotter) and avoid confusion (colder).

4. Most With Fewest

Think of it like a different game, perhaps: you’re trying to say as much as possible with as few words as you can muster. Big ideas put as briefly as you are able. Maximum clarity with minimum words.

5. The Myth Of The Perfect Word

Finding the perfect word is as likely as finding a downy-soft unicorn with a pearlescent horn riding a skateboard made from the bones of your many enemies. Get shut of this notion. The perfect is the enemy of the good. For every sentence and every story you have a plethora of right words. Find a good word. Seek a strong word. But the hunt for a perfect word will drive you into a wide-eyed froth. Though, according to scholars, “nipplecookie” is in fact the perfect word. That’s why Chaucer used it so often. Truth.

6. No One Perfect Word, But A Chumbucket Of Shitty Ones

For every right word, you have an infinity of wrong ones.

7. Awkward, Like That Kid With The Headgear And The Polio Foot

You might use a word that either oversteps or fails to meet the idea you hope to present. A word in that instance would be considered awkward. “That dinner fornicated in his mouth” is certainly a statement, and while it’s perhaps not a technically incorrect metaphor, it’s just plain goofy (and uh, kinda gross). You mean that the flavors fornicated, or more likely that the flavors of the meal were sensual, or that they inspired lewd or libidinous thoughts. (To which I might suggest you stop French-kissing that forkful of short ribs, pervhouse.) To go with the food metaphor for a moment (“meat-a-phor?”), you ever take a bite of food and, after it’s already in your mouth, discover something in there that’s texturally off? Bit of gristle, stem, bone, eyeball, fingernail, whatever? The way you’re forced to pause the meal and decipher the texture with your mouth is the same problem a reader will have with awkward word choice. It obfuscates meaning and forces the reader to try to figure out just what the fuck you’re talking about.

8. Ambiguous, Like That Girl With That Thing Outside That Place

Remember how I said earlier that words are like LEGO, blah blah blah help define reality yadda yadda poop noise? Right. Ambiguous word choice means you’re not defining reality very well in your prose. “Bob ate lunch. It was good. Then he did something.” Lunch? Good? Something? Way to wow ‘em with your word choice, T.S. Eliot. To repeat: aim for words that are strong, confident, and above all else, clarifying.

9. Incorrect, Like That Guy Who Makes Up Shit When He’s Drunk

Incorrect word choice means you’re using the wrong damn word. As that character says in that movie, “I do not think it means what you think it means.” Affect, effect. Comprise, compose. Sensual, sensuous. Elicit, illicit. Eminent, immanent, imminent. Allude, elude. Must I continue? Related: if you write “loose” instead of “lose,” I cannot be held accountable if I kick you so hard in your butthole you choke on a hemorrhoid.

10. Step Sure-Footedly

Point of fact: the English language was invented by a time-traveling spam-bot who was trapped in a cave with a crazy monk. Example: The word “umbrage” means “offense,” so, to take umbrage means to take offense. Ah, but it also means the shade or protection afforded by trees. I used to take the second definition and assume it carried over to the people portion of that definition. Thus, to “take umbrage” meant in a way to “take shelter” with a person, as in, to both be under the same shadow of the same tree. I used the word incorrectly for years like some shithead. If you’re uncertain about the use of any word, it’s easy enough to either not use it or use Google to define it (“define: [word]” is the search you need). Do not trust that the English language makes sense or that your recollection of its madness is pristine. It will bite you every time.


Read the rest of the post, which includes 15 more things writers should know about word choice, on terribleminds.