The power of one significant word should never be underestimated. As Mark Twain reminds us, the difference between the right word and almost the right word is the difference between lightning and a lightning bug.
Replacing a boring word with a better one can change a character. I remember once replacing the word “green” with “emerald” on the first page of a story and having it transform the way I felt about my protagonist. The more romantic way of describing the color of a leaf infused her with a certain longing I had overlooked in previous drafts.
Discovering the perfect word can inspire a scene, a chapter, or even your entire manuscript. I feel like the word “inexplicable” gave my first novel just the right tone. And finding that perfect word can increase your confidence: This is the kind of writer I am—I will always be able to find the perfect words whenever I need to.
In Your First Novel, the book on craft I co-authored with my literary agent Ann Rittenberg, I talk about using one right word instead of a bulky phrase that means the same thing. “Norman was unable to cope with the demands of his social environment” is better as “Norman was maladjusted.”
Noah Lukeman in his writing manual The First Five Pages talks about the overuse of words like “very” and “really,” red flags that point out bad word choices. Very happy could be ecstatic, really angry could be furious, really very tall could be towering. (Okay, I’m being silly, but you know what I mean.)
By the way, I also recommend trying Lukeman’s exercise in which you take a paragraph or page of your manuscript and remove all adverbs and adjectives and then change your verbs (nouns, too) making more powerful word choices. The rewrite of the following sentence makes his point.
Before: For the first ten minutes, George seemed very reluctant to share what he knew or felt, but suddenly he began to repeat Sally’s story, word for word, exactly the same way she had related it.
After: At first George was reticent, but then repeated Sally’s story verbatim.
But it’s not just about being concise or non-cliché. Great writers can lure us into a story with a perfect word or woo us so that we fall in love with a character or suspend our disbelief with the spell of a well-chosen word.
I greatly admire the novelist Janet Fitch (White Oleander.) When writing A Certain Slant of Light I studied her unconventional descriptions. She creates metaphors using just the right words–a potential cliché becomes a fresh image that startles the reader by elevating the prose. Rather than “I saw something that deflated my mood” Fitch writes “I saw something that sucked the winds out of my sails, they flapped and then hung empty in midocean.” I would read Fitch and think, midocean, much better than out at sea. I learned a lot from her.
Others I have been inspired by:
“Vines strangle their own kin in the everlasting wrestle for sunlight.” Barbara Kingsolver, The Poisonwood Bible. That plants had “kin” sucked me in from that first page.
“I suppose she was the most beautiful creature I ever saw in my life.” Daphne du Maurier, Rebecca. How perfect that the character of Frank uses the term creature rather than woman or girl, because the first Mrs. de Winter turns out to be quite a monster.
“The thing tore the throat out of Hugo Baskerville, on which, as it turned its blazing eyes and dripping jaws upon them, the three shrieked with fear.” Arthur Conan Doyle, The Hound of the Baskervilles. How chilling that the beast’s mouth wasn’t merely bloody but dripping.
“During the day, I lived a life of stripperly sloth.” Diablo Cody, Candy Girl. She had, in fact, been a stripper, but I never would have thought of turning that noun into an adjective.
That was fun, but now I must go find the perfect words for my current novel rewrite. Happy choosing to you!