Just the Right Word

I'll follow up on the post the other day by drilling down deeper into word choices. That's because our minds can be stuck in certain ruts, and we end up using the same words over and over again. I frequently consult a thesaurus because a manuscript I’m editing keeps employing certain common words over and over again. While freshness of story concept is an overarching attraction for a reader, freshness of vocabulary can be a subtler but ongoing source of satisfaction.

I have to admit, I love reviewing an entire horde of possible substitutes for a word. Each has its own shade of meaning. Among the greatest assets of the American Heritage Dictionary are its boxes that parse out, in a sentence apiece, how a list of similar words should be employed. For instance, “bombast” and “claptrap” seem to be roughly equivalent, but the dictionary points out the difference. “Bombast stresses inflation of style but does not always imply insubstantiality of thought,” whereas “Claptrap is insincere, empty speech or writing.” I think most good writers want to make sure that they are using the right shade of meaning.

You need to be careful. though. Often I encounter a word that is approximately correct, but stands out like a sore thumb because it is elevated so far beyond the writer’s usual level of diction. A look at one of Merriam-Webster’s Words of the Day on my homepage shows the wide divergence of common versus fancy. The word was “nimiety,” one that, despite my fair knowledge of vocabulary, had me stumped. It turned out to mean “excess, redundancy.” Synonyms supplied included “overkill,” “plethora,” “superfluity,” “surfeit,” “surplus,” and “preponderance.” If you are writing a thriller in which you have tough guys and molls, the words that will fit your level of diction are going to be “overkill” and “surplus.” A reader of the genre immediately grasps the meaning and moves on. If you are careful, you will find another word at the same level of diction—that  will work perfectly.

The other words would be good choices in a more literary work, although I’m still not sure about “nimiety,” unless you like to use three-dollar words that send readers scrambling for the dictionary. (I will note that, oddly enough, in the days when I used to write down every word I didn’t know, I found Henry Miller had the widest range of vocabulary words. Read Black Spring at your peril.)

Being a wordsmith means knowing your tools. If you are as boundlessly creative as the authors you admire, the bon mot will pop into your fertile brain. Yet if you find yourself annoyed that you’ve picked the same word once again, a thesaurus provides a means by which to free yourself from the rut you’re in. Just think: an entire paragraph of similar words, and maybe even several paragraphs. That can only be described as a pleasure to behold.

Exercise: One reason you are frustrated enough to consult a thesaurus may be that you’re trying too hard. You’re trying to jam that overused word into a sentence. Instead, review the possible synonyms with an open mind. You may discover that an alternate word that you like won’t fit into your existing sentence—but it would if you reconstructed the sentence around the synonym.

“The difference between the right word and the almost right word is the difference between lightning and a lightning bug.”
—Mark Twain

Copyright @ 2018, John Paine

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