Choosing the Right Words

If you’re a writer studying craft, you may come across the term “weak words”, specifically in the context of not using them.

Weak words are words that are lazy, or vague–the low-hanging fruit in your vocabulary. Don’t simply choose a word; choose the right word. There’s nothing that will teach you to do this more than poetry. When you have so few words to work with, choosing the right word becomes essential. Even if you’re not much of a poet, you can still use more powerful words to give your narrative better impact. Here’s how to give your words more power, even if you’re not Alfred Tennyson.

Be Specific

The English language is rich and full of nuance. If you go to the thesaurus and look up synonyms for a word, each one will carry with it different nuances.

If you wanted to say that something “was hard” (as in difficult), looking that word up in the thesaurus will give you a list something like this:


Ambitous implies a worthy goal that may be within the reach of the person acting, but will require extraordinary effort. Burdensome, on the other hand, implies something oppressive or unwelcome, and is often (though not always) used to describe something requiring the expenditure of emotional strength, rather than physical–whereas strenuous is more often used to describe physical effort.

Troublesome implies a more trifling inconvenience, or something that annoys, where insurmountable implies an impossible task.

Beautiful (while I’m not entirely opposed to its use; sometime’s it’s appropriate) can be elegant, magnificent, ravishing, or resplendent. Each of these has a slightly different meaning. Don’t choose an alternate word simply because it’s more complex; go for the appropriate nuance.

Sometimes it’s is better to go for the obvious or low-hanging fruit–particularly in dialogue, or when you’re writing in a very casual narrative voice. People generally tend to go for easier words when speaking, and being too articulate can feel unnatural–depending on the person, of course.

Use Words to Create Subtext

The right words can give your narrative a different feeling, and imply things that you’re not necessarily saying outright. This is called subtext. Subtext, wielded well, can separate adequate prose from the masterful.

Let’s take the example of a woman on the beach. You know that sensation of warm skin and cool sand, naps in the sun with the ocean breeze in your hair? You want to evoke that in a way that will be very vivid and descriptive for your reader–but you don’t want it to be particularly sexual–and a woman on the beach can very easily have that suggestion.

You begin the paragraph by describing the ample sun warming the bronze skin of her back, legs, and bare shoulders. The ocean breeze kisses her bronze skin, and her toes curl into the sand as she enjoys the feeling of it sliding between them. She grasps her phone, half buried in the sand, and gropes after her sunglasses.

So… you haven’t mentioned anything overtly sexual, or even mentioned whether or not this woman is beautiful. You haven’t talked about her breasts. But the word choice suddenly makes this scene feel very sensual, particularly in the context of a woman experiencing the pleasure of being on the beach.

See how I used the words “experiencing pleasure”? Were I to say “a woman having fun on the beach”, suddenly the sentence feels different.

Describing the same situation, but with the sun beating down on her, with the coarse, sticky sand clinging to every surface, with the screeching of children in the distance. Yeah, that doesn’t sound awesome–and if you use the words in the context of her enjoying a relaxing day at the beach, the effect will be dissonant. You can use that to your benefit, if you’re trying to imply that she’s pretending to have fun, maybe for the benefit of her children or friends, but hating every moment… without explicitly stating it.

You can use the same technique to suggest an ominous feeling in another context. The sound of the man’s footsteps echoed in the gloomy darkness of the cavernous parking structure. The wind howled through the openings in the concrete walls. The cars on either side of him were shrouded in murky shadows.

Not Shakespeare, I know, but you get the idea.

Words have power. They’re filled with nuance and atmosphere, and by wielding them properly, you can say far more to the reader than what’s contained in the actual words on the page. Your narrative will have greater impact, your world will feel more rich and vivid, and your characters more complex and lifelike.

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