Find the Right Word for the Job

By Mark Nichol

One of the most effective ways to achieve a rich, expressive writing style is to strive to find the ideal words to express yourself. For example, whether you’re writing a report or a novel, always review your writing to make certain you are using vivid descriptions.

Nouns

Let’s say you want to describe a box. Before you even get to piling adjectives on top of it, tell your reader what type of box it is: Is it a locker, or a locket? Is it a chest, a trunk, or a crate? Does it resemble a jewelry box, a tinderbox, or a snuffbox? (If a character in a story is secreting love letters or other objects he or she wishes to suppress, the box in question could be metaphorically referred to as a coffin.)

Adjectives

Plenty of handy words exist for helping readers picture something. There are terms for size, shape, mass, color, and other qualities, including how an object affects the five senses. But there are adjectives, and then there are adjectives. Which word conjures a more arresting image: Bad, or malevolent? Big, or monolithic? Black, or a synonym like ebony, obsidian, or sable that also provides a textural clue?

Verbs

You’re describing someone walking. But there’s more than one way to walk. Is the person ambling, or scrambling? Strolling, or strutting? Mincing, or meandering? Precise verbs can convey a lot of information, signal your tone (serious or whimsical), and help readers visualize action.

Adverbs

How does something occur? With the right verb, adverbs are less important or even unnecessary (just as an ideal noun can diminish the need for an adjective), but they can come in handy. Is something said mirthfully, or morosely? Confidently, or confidentially? Rightfully, or righteously (or self-righteously)? Illustrative adverbs help verbs just as coordinated colors please the eye.

Collecting Words

How do you find just the right word for the job? A thesaurus (one type of -saurus that will never go extinct) is a handy tool for enriching written language, but the most effective strategy is to read good books and articles (online or in print). Amassing one’s word-hoard (a magnificent compound stemming from the Old English term wordhord) is best accomplished organically by osmosis. Read so that you can write writing others will read.

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4 Responses to “Find the Right Word for the Job”

  • Ray Fleming

    I am particularly interested in the use of nouns and how they are modified by adjectives.

    n some scientific reports we used to try and remove all adjectives to see how descriptive / understandable the sentence was – in some cases the answer was to replace the noun with a more approriate noun and (if found, though not always) the adjectives tend to be redundant.

    Since then, I have been rather suspicious of the use of adjectives in sentence (especially in popular press) and their inclusion would appear to bulk out a press clipping, or make it more flowery, rather than add any factual enhancement. Clearly, adjectives are needed, but I feel they are overused and can detract from understanding.

  • Rebecca

    Great advice! Sometimes it’s best to think about what you’re writing and how you want to write it. Once you finish, leave your work alone and go back to it. You may discover you can change or eliminate words.

  • Michael Corey

    Yes, excellent reminders.

    How is it that some writers—Morris West for example—are able to whack it all down in a single sitting whilst us mere mortals must spend many sleepless nights…er…losing sleep writing, re-writing and re-writing again?

    Sigh.

  • Mark Nichol

    Ray:

    As in most cases, moderation is ideal. English would be a dry language without adjectives, and Hemingway-esque brevity can get wearying. But I agree that they can become crutches and can be overused; I’ve been guilty on both charges.

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