At my advanced age, I am still laboring under the impression that, I was a pretty darn good college poet. It’s more likely that a few of my poems passed the sniff test and the rest stunk, but I’ll retain my illusion, thank you. What I do know for reality is that I loved picking out the individual words for those poems and found that the exercise of poetry made my prose writing better.
Poetry taught me that the better your individual word choices, the better your writing. That might seem like a statement worthy of a “well, duh” response, but I submit to you that some writing sings and some talks in a monotone, and a lot of the difference is word choice.
So, here are a few thoughts on choosing words.
Audience. Who are you writing for? Adults? Kids? Women? Men? One writer who does a great job of taking audience into account is J.K. Rowling. The Harry Potter novels increase their language sophistication with every book as Harry gets older. Or compare lines from the beginning of “The Killer Angels” by Michael Shaara to a few from the beginning of Gone with the Wind by Margaret Mitchell:
From the former: “They are rebels and volunteers. They are mostly unpaid and usually self-equipped. It is an army of remarkable unity, fighting for disunion.” The words are mostly factual and sharp-edged. The closest you get to “pretty words” are “unity” and “disunion.” It’s my guess this book was originally aimed mainly at men, although with a Pulitzer prize to its credit I’m sure a lot of people of both genders read it.
From the latter: “In her face were too sharply blended the delicate features of her mother, a Coast aristocrat of French descent, and the heavy ones of her florid Irish father.” The words are soft, lyrical—“delicate,” “aristocrat,” and “florid.” Mitchell is writing a historical romance, probably originally intended primarily for women, although it has garnered readers everywhere.
Meaning. Obviously, you want a word that means the right thing, but there are different opportunities with synonyms. You could say, for instance, “The starving dogs fought over the orts from the master’s table.” On the other hand, you could say, “The starving dogs fought over the scraps from the master’s table.”
“Ort” is a little-used word for a bit of food left from a meal. If you guess your audience will be full of people who like unusual words, or who might already be familiar with “orts,” or if you just plain want to be obscure, “orts” might be your ticket. “Scraps,” “bits,” “morsels,” or “chunks,” might be good enough, though. I mean, really… orts?
Context. What setting is the word used in? Who is using it? If you’re writing a tough-guy novel about an army general, he might say “Let’s start a war.” If you’re writing something about college professor, he might say “Let’s instigate a conflict.” If you’re describing a mountain outcrop as an inviting destination, you might use words like “majestic,” or “challenging.” If you’re describing the same outcrop as an obstacle, it might be “flinty” or “barren.”
Sound. Sometimes you need a word that falls into the ear the right way. That has a lot to do with the words surrounding it, but let’s take a couple of words on their own. Say your character is taking after somebody’s car with a sledgehammer. “Smash” sounds more like the action itself, whereas “demolish” doesn’t sound like the action and actually distances you from it.
“Smash” winds up with that “sm” sound—you can almost hear the hammer on the backswing—and then down it comes with “ash!” It’s a single, pointed syllable.
With “demolish,” the three syllables all have softer sounds. With “de” maybe the character is swinging the hammer back and forth a bit. With “mo” I don’t get much of an image at all, just a hushing—maybe the character puts the hammer down because it’s heavy. And “lish,” while it gives you the same “sh” as “smash,” is sapped of power by the gentle “li” sound and the preceding two syllables. So, do you want the reader to have that immediacy or not? Maybe if the scene is actually happening, “smash” is the best choice, but if the scene is part of a dream sequence, perhaps the more distant sound of “demolish” would work better.
I could go on, but I think I’ll spare you the agony. Just remember that choosing the right word for the right moment in your writing can make the difference between singing and squawking.