f a i t h * i n * f i c t i o n: Day 4 of Details – Precise Language. Exact Wording. Particular Phrasing.

f a i t h * i n * f i c t i o n

Thursday, March 31, 2005

Day 4 of Details – Precise Language. Exact Wording. Particular Phrasing.

Perhaps the worst definition we learn during our formative years in school is for the word "synonym." What is a "synonym?" Well, we were told in first or third or fifth grade that a synonym is a word that means the same thing as another word. Vast and enormous mean the same thing. Spunky and sassy. Scared and afraid. Boring and NASCAR. You get the idea.

A little later in school they try to sneak in the fact that words have denotations and connotations but that’s in high school when you’re listening more to your hormones that your teacher and so many of us enter our adult life thinking that, should we need a bigger word to "smart up" our cover letter, we need only open the holy grail of synonyms—the thesaurus—and select the longest word.

We in the writing trade know that’s a fool’s thinking. English is a problematic enough language without rendering obsolete what small distinctions remain between words. Our goal as writers is to rediscover the precision that may be found in our native tongue…and to put use it to our benefit.

To me, this is a topic that need not be applied the first time through a story. Your goal in your first draft is to simply get the words down. There’s not a chance in Hades you’ll get them all correct, so don’t slow yourself down lingering over synonyms for "disgust." Think about simply using your "highlighter" option in Word to mark the spot for further thinking…or better yet, plan to hone your language during the second draft.

Specific words not only enhance details, they truly do make the difference in the voice of your characters. Too many men and women speaking plain, vague language turns your book into a literary box of Nilla wafers.

This second time through is your pas de deux with your thesaurus. A few paragraphs ago I disparaged their use a little, but really a good thesaurus is one of the crucial tools a writer needs.

Look for places to substitute in new words…but choose them based on their definitive meanings and their sound on the page. These are the little flourishes that will bring zest and zing to your book.