“The difference between the almost right word and the right word is really a large matter — ’tis the difference between the lightning-bug and the lightning.”
Mark Twain had a simple rule for writing: “Use the right word everywhere, not its second cousin.” This invaluable nugget of advice emerged in a Write Group session on creative word choices led by seasoned editor and writer Toby Stein (see my post, Writing Simply).
During Toby’s lively and playful session, she had us do a simple but powerful word exercise: take a series of commonplace words and write down alternatives that were more evocative and exciting. The results were fascinating! As we started sharing the words we’d each come up with, the first few were fairly predictable, but as each of us dug deeper, the word choices became more vibrant, unusual, and richer. Here are a few examples from Toby’s provocative session to pique your interest:
cry: beautiful: ugly:
tear up radiant hideous
wept glowing repulsive
sob adorable unattractive
sniffled captivating scarred
watered fetching wizened
keen stunning pock-marked
wail exquisite monstrous
trickled enthralling ghastly
whine glamorous oafish
bawl lithesome misshapen
leak tears enchanting deformed
inhale tears inner-lit clenched
As we started throwing juicier, more pungent words out, the energy in the room lifted — you could feel the excitement and everyone’s sense of playfulness being ignited. While I’m devoted to my copy of my Roget’s Thesaurus, which my mom gave me, I often use it as a crutch. It was really eye-opening to see the inspired word choices tumbling out of people’s brains when they just pushed themselves to come up with more compelling word choices off the top of their head. It reminded me of the fact that Shakespeare didn’t have either a dictionary or a thesaurus to work with (see my post, Sans Dictionary). One result: he invented tons of creative words still in use today.
So the next time you’re in revision mode, why not take a page and circle some of the words on it that seem pale and lackluster — and challenge yourself to jot down five or ten alternatives on your own and see what you come up with. The results may surprise and delight you. Bravo, Toby! Thanks for an inspiring approach to word play as we all write on!