Vivid word choices enhance detail

A portrait painter works in large tonal blocks first, light and dark, before adding detail. As writers, we can do the same, focusing on the big-picture elements as we write and do our developmental edit. But now we are down to line editing, adding the details that will make the portrait of our characters come alive.

One thing that elevates prose from mediocre to great is word choice. Using precise words rather than general ones enhances the reader experience. It’s one thing to give your hero a car. It’s another thing to give him a sports car. Give him an Aston Martin and you’re at a whole other level.

Vivid word choices enhance detail

Photo © farizaa • Fotolia
Photo © farizaa • Fotolia

I don’t mean to say that you need to specify the make and model of every single item in your story. Too much product placement can weigh a book down. But cars, fashion, and, if it’s appropriate to your genre, weapons, are all good candidates. The woman who wears Christian Louboutin shoes is very different from the woman who just wears high-heeled pumps. Know your characters and your readers.

Sometimes to be specific you need to add an adjective—is the chair an armchair or a side chair? Other times, you need to find a specific word. Maybe it’s a rocker or a recliner. At times like that, a reverse dictionary can help.

How nice is nice?

Nice is not a descriptive word. I rarely take a word completely off the table—they all have their uses—but I see this one a lot in new writers’ manuscripts, and it’s just not descriptive.

Let’s take steaks. If we’re grilling steaks, I know I better put my husband’s on about an hour before everyone else’s, because he likes his well-done. I like mine medium. That’s what I call a nice steak. Our neighbor? He’ll tell you “show the steak a picture of a fire.” He likes his dangerously rare.

Three entirely different definitions of “a nice steak.”

What about a nice living room? A nice pair of shoes? A nice neighborhood?

The living room might be elegant or cozy. The shoes could be fashionable or comfortable. The neighborhood might be wealthy and snooty or poor and friendly.

Even to describe a person’s behavior, nice is insufficiently specific. If I say “she was nice to me,” that could mean she displayed a modicum of politeness, or it could mean she went out of her way to help me.

As you edit, purge generalities. Use specific words to describe things and people—words that reflect the way the viewpoint character feels about them.

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2 Comments

  1. I like the way you incite us to “think.” Even when you know these things, it’s easy to get in a rut or run rough-shod through a manuscript to “get ‘r done.”

  2. Getting the manuscript done is important. Write as poorly as you have to then. Leave this kind of detail work for the editing.

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