The Right Words: All Words Are Not Created Equal
Good morning, blog children! (Or, via the movie O Brother! Where Art Thou…Soggy Bloggum Boys. I think you guys are going to be the Soggy Bloggum Boys from now on).
You might be wondering where I went yesterday. I feel I owe you a simple answer before I proceed, and it IS a simple answer.
It was mah berfday. Therefore: I was busy drinking and opening presents and being twenty seven. Sorry about that. Kind of. (I got a dehydrator. Have I mentioned I got a dehydrator yet?)
Anyway. On to writing stuff.
This is a short but important post, and it’s about word choice. Specifically, it’s about word choice and extreme prejudice.
You see, kiddos. Not all words are created equal.
You’ve seen the lists, just like I have. 200 Other Words to Use in Place of ‘Said’. 50 Words to Substitute for ‘Went’. Four Billion Things To Desperately Grasp For When Your Ass Means ‘Was’, But Is Too Afraid of Looking Unwriterly to Use It.
Unsurprisingly, these lists are another thing in the long line of writing aids and advice I just don’t agree with. Because, again, not all words are created equal. Not all words, in short, that have the same rough approximate meaning as ‘said’ mean ‘said’. (Also, if your vocabulary is good enough, you don’t need a list. And you’ve all seen my posts about building a good vocabulary.)
This is especially true in dialogue. Words bring their own history with them, their own stereotypes, their own flavor. If you ever don’t believe me on that, just think about the power ‘bad words’ have in our society–think about the difference between calling an American of African descent a black person, an African American, or the n word (which is one curse word, ladies and gents, you will never see me use here). All three of these terms technically could refer to the same person. One of them is unspeakable, and why?
Because of its history. Because of the way we look at that word, the emotions it triggers. The person who uses the last term in speech is probably a white supremacist and an asshole, and you’d NEVER substitute that word for one of the other two just because it ‘has the same approximate meaning’ (or I hope you wouldn’t. Jesus.). I leave the other two up to you, but you get my point. Think about that, briefly, next time you’re debating the difference between perambulating, strolling, and just plain walking. What does each of those words bring to the table? What sort of person can you picture using each of those words?
The fact is, my writerly ladies and gents: no matter how liberal and free-thinking you otherwise are, when you’re writing, you are inextricably bound to the stereotypes of words. You have, after all, no other medium in which to influence your reader, no pictures in which to show your story, no chance of bringing the reader by for a cup of coffee over which she can meet up with your character and get to know him a little better. If you use ‘stroll’ instead of ‘walk’, your reader has to make snap judgements based on the fact that this person is strolling rather than walking or plodding or shuffling, because, for the moment, that is the only thing he or she knows.
So, instead of being a git and bemoaning your inability to take back the word ‘perambulate’, work within the boundaries of your goddamn craft.
Your character should only be strolling along if he or she is actually strolling along. If he or she is walking, just let the poor bastard walk. Don’t try to change it because you’re worried the word is overused, or isn’t fancy enough, or wouldn’t pass the rapier wit test at your best friend’s ironic teatime soirees (your friends don’t have these? Jeez, what kinds of friends do you have?).
To prove my point, I’m going to give you two shorts lists of words. I want you to picture the person using each of these words, and the people the word is used to describe. You’ll notice the picture is very different for each word, and whether that’s a good or a bad thing, well, I don’t particularly care. Because words are what you’ve got, and you need to use them with excercises like this in mind.
1) A group of people, also known as–
*gals (or guys)
2) An attractive woman, who could also be described as–
You seeing what I mean yet?
Don’t let your only reason for using a word be because it’s unusual, or because you’ve used another word too much. Each word brings with it a very specific visual image, of both the object described and your POV character. A person who thinks of an attractive woman as ‘hot’ is a very different person from the one who thinks of her as ‘pulchritudinous’, and the woman you picture is very different, too.
So I’m begging you. Don’t change your wording without a good goddamn plan, and certainly not because some list of five million alternatives for ‘went’ tells you to. Change it, always, with the reader in mind, and with an eye for the atmosphere you’re trying to create.
Otherwise, all that time you spent trying not to use the same speech tag twice in a novel will certainly be noticed, because it isn’t natural and it doesn’t flow naturally. And, trust me, the last thing you want is for the devices of your story to be noticed over the actual story. It’s like putting a picture in a frame that doesn’t fit.