Choosing the Right Word

by Megan DiMaria

As writers, we work with words the way a sculptor uses chisels, files, and hammers.

The words we choose and the way we arrange them determines our success, so choosing the exact word needed to convey an idea, emotion, characterization or setting is crucial.

As Mark Twain said, “The difference between the almost right word and the right word is really a large matter–it’s the difference between the lightning bug and the lightning.”

All words carry connotations, both personally to the reader and also culturally to the society. Authors need to be conscious of the connotations of the language they select. There’s an older subdivision in the metro-Denver are that was built out by the Denver Swastika Land Company, a company founded in 1908. The name of the neighborhood? Swastika Acres. Shocking, isn’t it? But in our 21st Century context we think of the swastika as the official emblem of the Nazi party. At the beginning of the last century the swastika was simply seen as an ancient symbol found on Greek coins and as a Native American symbol of infinity.

Aside from the connotations words carry, it’s important to select the best word for your application. Use the most specific word to carry the strength of your meaning. Instead of using the word anger/angry to describe the emotion of your character, use a more specific word such as irritation, outrage, frustration, passion, jealousy, and disgust to name a few. Dive beneath the surface to find the best meaning. If Sally were to discover she just won a big prize, she wouldn’t simply be happy, she’d be delighted.

Look at this simple sentence: The eager applicant waited patiently in the lobby. I took that sentence and went through the thesaurus to find synonyms to construct this sentence: The wishful candidate lingered calmly in the lobby. Can you see the difference the two sentences make? I would certainly feel more confident in hiring the first person, wouldn’t you?

Stay away from the dreaded cliché. Nothing makes writing more boring than using old clichés. Be creative, and find a new way to convey an old meaning. In Searching for Spice, my character had knots in her stomach, except I didn’t want to say that. Instead, I said she had a group of jolly gnomes doing a conga dance through her intestines. Not wanting to use the same line again, in the sequel, Out of Her Hands, I said my character had a passel of prairie dogs running circles in her stomach. Since my character was a Coloradan, that reference was appropriate. Be brave and create new ways to say the same old thing.

Sometimes as writers we tend to use the same kind of description over and over for our characters or settings. I discovered a great little book that is a great jumping off place to create new ways to say the same old thing. It’s the Romance Writer’s Phrase Book. Check it out.

Don’t refer to something generically when you can be more specific. Instead of a shady tree, your character might think of it as a majestic cottonwood. Call it a blue jay, not just a bird. But be careful not to overdo it though, language that is too rich can be tiresome to the reader.

This article certainly isn’t the end-all-and-be-all of word choices; it’s just an invitation to consider being more selective when choosing your words. After all, a writer’s words are their tools.

For more info: How to Slay a Cliché.


Megan DiMaria has been a freelance writer for 20 years and is the author of two women’s fiction novels, Searching for Spice and Out of Her Hands, both of which are set in the Denver area. She is a member of several writers’ groups and enjoys encouraging other writers in their pursuits. Visit her online at

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