Hmm… What’s The Word I’m Looking For?

If you are a non-writer, you might be wondering:

“Ollin, what do you spend most of your time on when you write your novel?”

The answer is:  words.  “Words, words, words.”

At least that’s what I spend most of my time on. Finding that right word. Often it is easy to say what you want to say in plain, 3rd grade English. So once you get past that, it’s all about “How do I effectively tell the story with the right words?” “How do I effectively create images with the right words?” “How do I effectively describe a character with the right words?” and “How do I effectively engage a reader with… THE RIGHT WORDS!?”

A Thesaurus is always a writer’s companion, so is a Dictionary and other relevant research materials, but these are all tools that anyone can use. I think what makes a true writer is the ability, the skill, the talent, the know how, the practice, the experience, the patience to find the right word. You need patience. Because the right word doesn’t come right away and it will likely take many drafts before you find the right word. To give you an idea of what this process is like, as I write I might try 10 different words to fill in a space, in one sentence, in a less than one-minute time span. That means I try out an average of 600 different words in one hour! Of that 600, less than 100 words that I try out in a sentence make the final cut (and this is only the first draft!)  This is only an estimate of course, I’ve never really tried to calculate this until now but it’s important to note that this is not me boasting. This is hard, tedious work. Not fun unless, like me, you love playing with words.

I’m sure every writer has a different criteria to help them figure out how to find the right word, but here are my guidelines:

  • Denotation vs. Connotation: Like I used to tell my students when I was an English Tutor:  “The definition of a word is much different from its implied meaning.”  That’s why although a Dictionary and Thesaurus are good tools, they might be your secret enemies. Some synonyms may mean the same as the word you’re looking for but these synonyms might only be used in certain contexts. If you want to get good at understanding “Denotation” (a word’s dictionary definition) and “Connotation” (a word’s implied meaning) you might want to study the way other authors use the same words. You might also want to study Linguistics, or get familiar with The Latin and Greek Roots of words. You can study pre-fixes, or buy books on the history of certain words. Yeah I know, it’s all SAT stuff, but you’d be surprised at how well you can get familiar with words. Knowing words this well also helps you create an even deeper meaning for your work that maybe only geeks will enjoy–but at least it will give your work integrity. Oh yeah, and study Shakespeare really closely. I know, I know, you’re sick of hearing about him. But the bard as you know is hands-down the master of the English language. Once you get past all the academic talk surrounding him, and dig deep into what he is saying, I promise you’ll love him. (If you also write in Spanish, I recommend studying Cantinflas, the legendary Mexican comedian, and master of the Spanish language.)
  • Character: Words can easily be used to denote a character. For example, one of my characters in Ch. 4 is a domineering presence and has a deep voice. I found that if the word gruff, or gruffly was attached to his character, it really gave a more accurate portrait of who he was other than the other adverbs or adjectives I would try (i.e., “hoarsely” or “hoarse.”) Some words just fit certain characters. This word criteria is less of a science and more of “you-have-to-have-the-ear-for-it” kind of thing, unfortunately.
  • Theme, Symbol, Metaphor: Sometimes when I am really stuck on what word to use, but I am sure that the word I am currently using is not quite right, I think about my overall theme. That usually narrows down the word choice to a certain pool of words that are consistent with the story I am trying to tell. I’m going to give an example from my short story, The Heart Mender (UPDATE: This short story is no longer featured, sorry.). In the story, I wanted to use a different word other than “blush.” It is so commonly used, and as a reader I get so bored of it. Flushed, turned scarlet, etc are used just as often. As I was looking for a different way to say my main character, David, blushed, I was reminded that theme of my story had to do with miracles and healing, and how these things can only happen when one actively seeks them. Since the story was also rooted in Mexican folklore, I wanted to use symbols that shared a similar idea. I had used La Virgen de Guadalupe, a prevalent Mexican-American cultural image that appears often in the story, as a symbol. I hoped to parallel David’s journey of healing with that of Juan Diego and his journey to seek a miracle from The Virgin Mary. The Mexican folk story goes that Juan Diego had to gather roses for The Virgin Mary in order for a miracle to occur. Now that I was reminded of the themes, metaphors, and symbols of my story, I decided that instead of saying David “blushed,” I used the phrase “his cheeks became roses.” It was a new way of saying blushed, and it fit with my theme and the story of Juan Diego.
  • Sound, Flow, Aesthetics: Sometimes you just want your writing to sound pretty, so you delete or replace words according to how pretty (or not-so-pretty) they sound. But sometimes you purposely want it to sound bad, or strange, or odd, or silly, depending on the mood you are trying to create. Different writers have different views on this, but personally, I try to make my writing flow as smoothly as possible. But that smoothness has its consequences:  there’s more work involved and some hard-nosed revising, and revising, and revising… until the very last-minute. Writers like Beckett and McCarthy are sort of the opposite, they forgo pretty ornate language for simple, clear-cut, often raw and rough language. Again, it all depends on your style. Which brings us to our last criteria:
  • Style, Poetics, Narrative Voice: Some writers just love certain words and hate others. So there are words I tend to avoid (I try to sanitize myself against the words “suddenly” and “sudden” as much as I do the H1N1 virus.) Other words I use often. This is part of my style as an author, but it can shift depending on what kind of story I am telling. For instance, the voice of the narrator can shift fundamentally if a certain word is used–making your story sound inconsistent or uneven. Solidifying my Narrative Voice for my novel has been very challenging for me. Keeping everything consistent is much harder than you think. Finally there is a certain poetry that writers tend to stick to, like Lorca’s “Gypsies” or Williams’ Southern dialect. The word choice flows from one work to another, no matter how varied an author’s work becomes, until it becomes sort of a writer’s signature. I have my own poetics (symbols, ideas, themes, and words that I use often) and the best way I would suggest to look for your own poetics is to utilize the words, symbols, and metaphors from your childhood, from where you grew up in, from your culture, your language, your region, or even your time period. This all goes along the same lines of what is often said to growing writers: “Write about what you know.” Many writers don’t take this advice seriously but they should. It’s the difference between spending your life using words that mean nothing to you and barely hovering over the surface of anything real, or living with greater confidence in your work.

What criteria do you use when you are trying to find that Right Word? Good luck choosing your words fellow writers!

much word diction thesaurus connotation love,


>>> Novel Update: Still on Ch. 5. Since I’ve been traveling, I’ll have to play major catch-up this week.

>>> Blog Update: Thank you for making Blog Jog Day a success! This past May 9th I got new subscribers and the site had the highest number of hits in one day since it began! Welcome new friends to my crazy world!

>>> Life Update: Back from my Hawaii trip, broker than before, but muy relaxed!

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10 comments on “Hmm… What’s The Word I’m Looking For?

  1. Great post. Very informative, and an outstanding reminder, even to those who have been writing awhile, that it’s more important to feel the words than to write them.

    Also, you’re probably the fifth or sixth writer I’ve heard avoids the word “sudden” (or variants), so you’re not alone there. It’s over used, so it doesn’t quite put the image of “suddenness” in the mind’s eye, if that makes sense.

  2. unabridgedgirl says:

    I don’t know that I ever pay attention to words on my rough draft. I need to just get the story out before I lose it. The next drafts, though? Oh yes…plenty of searching for the right word.

  3. Lua says:

    ”The definition of a word is much different from its implied meaning.”
    I love this Ollin! And words are a great way to denote characters, you can tell a lot about someone from the way they speak and how they use the language.

    • ollinmorales says:

      That’s true. I didn’t mention a character’s dialect in that section, but yes, it’s important to give each character a specific voice to, to bring them to life. And that requires choosing the right words–which can also be challenging!

  4. I try to be wary of word “very”. Another thing I try to stay clear of is redundant wordings. I wrote a piece a few minutes back wherein I had used “returned back”. I realised it and I cringed.

    Thanks for the share. Loved reading.


    • ollinmorales says:

      yeah redundancy is actually sometimes hard to grab, especially when two of the criteria overlap: Aesthetics and Denotation/Connotation. I’ve often put two words together that mean the same thing but tried to still keep it because it sound pretty. In the end I had to cut a word, because it’s just stupid to have redundancies. You are right. Thanks for pointing that out!

  5. This is the absolute WORST PART OF WRITING! I know that sounds silly, after all isn’t the point to tell a story with words? But finsing the right words is often so difficult! You have the picture of the scene set in you head, but finding the proper, most perfect words to describe it is so challenging. Often what I do when I get really stuck on one or two words but am on a roll with my scene is leave a blank space, which I hate doing b/c usually when I come back to it I STILL can’t think of the word, but it helps me pound out a chapter or two …
    I like your criteria. You are obviously a much mroe organized and structured person than I am. You have a good system down that I try and replicate when I sit to write. 🙂

    • ollinmorales says:

      It is the most challenging part of writing, I agree. But it’s exciting at the same time because it becomes the chance for you to see if you can write about something in a way that has never been written before. You have done that with the stories that I have read of yours, so i wouldn’t shortchange your talent. Just because I do it this way doesn’t mean other writers should or need to. It’s just the way that I do it, and if it helps you, then that is awesome!

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