This is Part 3 in a 3 part series on purposing your writing, from a large scale to a small scale. See part 1 here: Purposed Scenes: 2 Things that Make Chapters Amazing and part 2 here: Purposed Characters: How to Win Your Readers’ Hearts.
“It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen,” George Orwell opened his novel 1984. The single word “thirteen” was easily understandable, but unexpected. If he had written that the clocks struck one, his first line would never have gained the attention that it has.
A good word choice is one that gets your meaning across, but a great word choice is one that resonates in your mind and your memory. While particular words are more of a detail, it can double the impact of what you’re saying.
What makes a good word into a great word?
The most obvious purpose words serve is meaning. It’s so obvious that it’s often overlooked.
In far too many instances, authors include such an abundance of words in their sentences and paragraphs that the meaning is obscured behind so much over-simplified or over-complicated terminology unnecessarily.
In other words: A lot of words hang around in writing that don’t need to be there.
It’s tempting to include more words or bigger words trying to sound smarter or more poetic. It usually doesn’t make things better, though. If you have too many words, the meaning of your sentence is spread out and tangled up. If you can put your meaning into a few, well-chosen words, it’s faster and easier to understand. That means more people will pay attention to it and more people will remember it.
A connotation is the things you associate with a word. Two words can have the same definition with two different implied associations. For example, “authoritative” and “bossy” both mean someone with a take-charge kind of personality, but “authoritative” is usually justified and “bossy” is too much of a take-charge personality. “Famous” and “notorious” both mean “well-known,” but one is used for Elvis and the other is used for Saddam Hussein.
Connotation can be a clever way to pack a lot of meaning into a few words. George Orwell’s use of “thirteen” in his first sentence communicated a different culture where the church clocks had all conformed to this standard. Because the number thirteen also has a connotation of bad luck, he was also hinting at the broken world that 1984 is about.
Doves have a connotation of innocence, freedom, and beauty. That’s why they’re used at weddings. Silk and big watches imply wealth. Trembling implies fear. One word can often paint a more vivid picture in someone’s mind than a page of description.
The sounds that make up words have their own connotations. For instance, “quiet” can sound a little abrupt, like something a frazzled mom yells at her unruly children. “Hush” sounds very different, even though it means the same thing. It sounds more like a soft breeze or a lullaby.
It isn’t a bad idea to make a list of the alphabet and as many sounds as you can think of. The P sound might make you think of popcorn, primping, and hopscotch – kind of a quick, happy, childish sound. The letter M could make you think of homemade meals and humming – soft and gentle.
Alliteration is when you use the same sounds right next to each other. It can contrast words, like Joni Mitchell did in “Big Yellow Taxi”:
They paved paradise and put up a parking lot.
Or it can associate words, like in Nickleback’s “Far Away”:
This time, This place
Too long, Too late
Companies often use alliteration because it’s catchy and memorable, like Dunkin’ Donuts, Coca-Cola, and American Airlines. J. K. Rowling, the master of character names, used alliteration in Severus Snape, Luna Lovegood, and Godric Gryffindor.
Choosing words for their sounds can make them really “pack a punch.”
But that’s too much work for 80,000 words.
I don’t mean to suggest that you use a checklist to consider every single word in your entire book manuscript. I am suggesting that you carefully consider individual words at key points, like these:
- The title. If there is any part of your book you want to be memorable, this is it.
- The first paragraph. This is one of the most important parts of your book, because it’s first impressions. It’s also building the foundations for the setting and tone. The first paragraph should sound like what you want the rest of the book to sound like.
- The climax. Because it’s the most emotional part of the book, it’s helpful to give a little extra attention to the way the words affect you emotionally at this point.
- The last paragraph. If the last paragraph echoes in your readers’ minds, they’re going to be thinking about how good your book was for days.
- Practice. Practicing poetry is a good way to develop your “ear” for how words work together, and it’s short enough that you can think about each word.
Bonus tip: The easiest way to know if your words are effectively woven together? Read them out loud. Use as much expression as you can. If you can’t read it with the emotion you want it to have, you can be sure you haven’t chosen the right words.
How important are the right words to you?