The difference between the almost right word and the right word is “the difference between the lightning bug and the lightning.” Mark Twain turned that phrase 120 years ago and it’s still applicable. In fact, many writers will tell you the hardest part of the job is finding the most appropriate noun or verb for a given sentence. The reason is because we aim to avoid clichés, meaning we’re constantly challenging ourselves to be inventive in ways beyond concocting plots and characters.
Whether you’re a journalist, public relations professional or author of literary fiction, expanding your vocabulary is fundamental to improving the quality of your work. If you believe writing involves craftsmanship then language is the toolbox to accomplishment. As with any field, the practitioners who best know how to use their tools will be able to differentiate themselves. Besides the thesaurus, other reference books that will help you grow as a wordsmith include “The Flip Dictionary”, “Word and Phrase Origins” and “Roget’s Super Thesaurus”. These texts go beyond dictionary definitions, giving you etymological information as well as colloquial phrases in addition to traditional synonyms.
If you’re writing a novel or short story, you should also look for opportunities to use verbs and nouns to enhance your plot and character development. In “The Road”, the 2007 Pulitzer Prize-winning book by Cormac McCarthy, the protagonist happens upon a vacated gas station in post-apocalyptic America in this sentence: “The cap was gone and the man dropped to his elbows to smell the pipe but the odor of gas was only a rumor, faint and stale.” The word “rumor” is evocative of the story’s themes of secrecy and dim hope. There were numerous ways McCarthy could have informed the reader the pump was out of gas, but he happened to choose a word that had some resonance to the overall story. Such masterful writing done consistently elevates storytelling to its peaks.
While finding the right word for a given sentence can be a matter of putting in time, there are also some keys that can help you improve. Here are five tips to better writing:
- End sentences in a hard consonant sound, such as “k” or “d”, which is more effective than placing an adverb prior to the period.
- Avoid the use of “thing”. It’s not specific.
- Don’t use “that”, “this” or “these” as a noun.
- Avoid repeated use of the same verb (or a form of it); ditto for nouns.
- Be creative. Next time you’re working on a story, try using nouns and proper names as verbs and see if it helps you produce a humorous or dramatic passage.
While these are guidelines, they’re not laws of English. Remember, writers frequently break the rules of language — often to great effect.