Sentence Structure # 04 Word Choice: The Sharper, The Better

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There is a difference between “Someone stole the priest’s thing!” and “The abbot’s lover absconded with his most prized Bible!” and that difference is owed to word choice. The more exact the words you make use of, the better. Words are the writer’s tools; you’ll want to avoid those with a blunted edge. Instead, you want your words to be sharp, to cut through the mind’s haze and shatter your reader’s pretty little heart!

Think of the last news article you clicked. Odds are, the headline was striking enough to catch your attention in-between the mountains of forgettable text the Internet is chock-full of. My last read? Pediatrician Seema Jilani’s first-person account of the Beirut catastrophe, titled: Broken Glass, Blood, and Anguish: Beirut After the Blast. See how evocative it is? The words immediately call to mind the recent tragedy, while at the same time providing ample space for the reader to add their own association with the first half of the title. These are concrete words, which forecast the very real and horrific experience the writer — and hundreds of thousands others — went through, an event that will continue to define many lives for months and years to come.

The opening of the article proper does not lose any steam:

As I emerged from the car, the air was still whirring with debris. Everything was eerily silent. But it wasn’t. I just couldn’t hear anything. My ears were ringing.

The street scene in front of me, almost two blocks from my apartment and walking distance from the epicenter of the blast, was a silent horror film. Stunned people stumbled out of cafés, dogs dripping with blood cowered in corners, cars crumpled under chunks of concrete. A young girl approached me, dust layered in her eyelashes and hair.

Broken Glass, Blood, and Anguish: Beirut After the Blast
Seema Jilani for the NYR Daily

I turned away from that article devastated, my understanding of the tragedy in Beirut now no longer merely the intellectual kind that a horrific tragedy happened which affected an entire city and its population; but the emotional understanding of and response to the plight of one family, and through that plight, the resonance that a thousand–ten thousand, a hundred thousand– families went through a visceral experience that has traumatised a society.

Hey, look at me breaking my own rule about sentence length. Back to the topic at hand…Such is the strength of concrete word choice; it is the most certain way of evoking the experience you want from your readers, and it’s among the most important building blocks in the writer’s toolbox.

Remove bland, general words from your writing unless they serve a very specific function in your sentence. June Casagrande puts it best:

I never want to read that your character heard a noise. I never want to read that the burglar stole some things. I never want to learn that your actions had an effect, that your CEO implemented a new procedure, or that your employees enjoyed a get-together.

I want loud thuds and Omega wristwatches. I want e-mail surveillance and sudden firings. Tell me that your CEO is cracking down on personal phone calls and that the accounting department held its annual drunken square dance and clambake in the warehouse.

Use specific words. Make it a habit to scrutinize your nouns and verbs to always aks yourself whether you’re missing an opportunity to create a more vivid experience for your Reader. This habit will open up a world of choices.

Chapter 6, Words Gone Mild

There isn’t much more to this topic, and the post can be distilled to the following advice from Yoda: Be mindful, young Padawan.

…Or was that a piece of advice from yoga?

Either way, vague words are the enemy. Cast them into the fire, and don’t look back.

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