Monday, April 25, 2011

In Search of the Perfect Word

I'm in the middle of turning a novella into a novel. The story is essentially a one-set exercise, with a cast of only three characters and a limited number of props. Part of the challenge has been coming up with new and varied ways to talk about the same place, prop, or person as the story unfolds.

It's a balancing act. Too much repetition and the book sounds amateurish. Too much novelty and I run the risk of sounding like I wrote with thesaurus at the ready.

As always, I write in search of the perfect word.

The Perfect Word Search is a necessary part of both factual and fictitious writing.

When I was working on Geoff Teall’s book for Trafalgar Square, shortly before the book was due at the printers an issue arose over the use of a single word: classical. As in “classical horsemanship,” “classical techniques,” and “classical riding.”

Those phrases, and others like them, occur throughout the book. But after in-depth discussions with both Geoff and the publishers, it became clear that the word did not accurately reflect Geoff’s intentions. To make matters worse, the phrases that use “classical” as a modifier mean different things to different horsepeople, depending on the discipline of choice.

For instance, Geoff used the word to denote something timeless that was not a modern affectation. He was talking about “correct” or “purposeful” hunt seat riding.

Persons with a background in dressage, however, think of Xenophon and ancient Greece when they think of “classical riding.” The dressage rider’s body position is considerably straighter in the “classical position” than in a hunt seat position.

And the search for the word continued. Mere days before the project went to press, I found myself going over the entire text and analyzing how we had used the word “classical” throughout it. I also wracked my brain to come up with a better word that more accurately reflected what Geoff meant when he said “classical.”

If this seems nit-picky to you, think again. This was not mere word-play. This was our final opportunity to make Geoff’s meaning, teachings, and philosophy crystal clear to the reader. The last thing we wanted was for readers around the world to be confused about what is a central concept within the text.

We’d actually been down this road once already on this project.

Months earlier, Geoff and I had the same sort of exegetic conversation about the use of the word “equitation.” To me, it meant “proper riding.” But to him, it also meant a particular competitive Hunter division and he didn’t want people to read the word and misunderstand its use. Of course, he was right.

What we did was define “equitation” right up front, from the very beginning. Then, any place within the manuscript where there might be some confusion, we used the more benign “riding.”

When faced with what you've written, the reader does not have the luxury of having you explain things that are unclear. So take the time when the project is still in manuscript form to make sure that every word you use means exactly what you want it to. It’s an obvious, but often forgotten truth: When writing, words are all you have. Treat them with respect and use them wisely.

What techniques do you use to help you find the perfect word? How do you avoid sloppy repetition? How do you ensure that your meaning is clear?  Share your wisdom in the comments.

And now, if you'll excuse me, the search continues...


Anonymous said...

Word choice is tricky. You want the word to be perfectly suited but you don't want it to be awkward for your reader.

It is not easy, but I think the main point in writing is to be clear. As long as you keep that in mind you should be fine.

I liked your post and I agree with you: being picky about words is part of a writer's job. Words is what we have after all.

Just one thing I would like to add is that sometimes we overuse adverbs because we're not able to pick the best word. And that is a good symptom to check.

Ami Hendrickson said...


Ah, yes, those dreaded modifiers. Sometimes I suspect they are merely beacons that highlight my vocabulary shortcomings.

Other times, however, I can use what I think is the ideal verb or noun, only to discover that its uniqueness bumps people out of the story. (For instance, in my WIP, I called one character a "naif." People in my weekly writing group had issues with it, 'cause no one knew what one was. ~sigh~)

All the best to you in your continuing search!

Leah Petersen said...

I often find myself in search of the perfect word because I've read so many books over the years that I know the word I want is out there. I've seen it before. It's perfect and I just can't handle using anything else.

But my memory is absolute crap. So I do write with a thesaurus at hand. (Well, But my rule is that I only use words I already knew, I just couldn't bring to mind when I needed them.

If I didn't already know a word that looks like it might be better, well, that just means I need to read more. ;)

Ami Hendrickson said...

I know the feeling of *knowing* the perfect word is out there.

In "Packing for Mars," Mary Roach used the word "genuflect" in such a wonderful, ingenious, perfect way that I nearly put the book down and hung up my writing hat.

But I didn't. Instead, I decided to shamelessly steal her brilliance and purloin the word for my own nefarious purposes.

I'm not above letting others do the searching and then using what they've found. :)

And you're right: if we don't read, we don't improve.

Orlando said...

It does not come easy to me. Sometimes I think it doesn't come at all. Maybe I need a method. I don't have one, I just write.

I'm new to your blog, found you in Twitter. Good stuff, I enjoyed it.