Finding the right word (Mistake #125)

“The view is indescribable.”

“There are no words.”

“It’s hard to know what to say about …”

All these are common expressions I’ve come across in the work of new writers.

The first crops up in various forms in far too many travel articles. Writers: you have to find the words. The view is perfectly describable and you must describe it. You have to do better than ‘amazing’ and — heaven forbid — ‘breathtaking’. If you add a ‘literally’ before either of these then you must sit on the naughty step indefinitely.

It may be hard to know which words to use to say something about something, but you have the time to think about it when you’re a writer. You’re not giving an off-the-cuff speech. Nobody is looking over your shoulder as you write, and nobody will know that you toiled for minutes, hours, even days, scratching your head, hunting for those perfect words.

There are words. There are always words. Never say ‘there are no words’.

There are around a quarter of a million words in English. You don’t have to know them all, or even the majority of them, but you do need to find one when you need one, and when readers expect one.

I have previously extolled the virtues of The Reverse Dictionary, so won’t repeat myself here.

You don’t need me to tell you that you need a good dictionary and a good thesaurus on your bookshelf.

There are some great ‘Books about words’ listed on my Books for writers page which you might find useful too.

What I’m saying here is to be honest with yourself if you’ve not expressed something as well as it could be expressed in your writing. Challenge yourself to find a better word, even a new-to-you word, to use. It’s not pretentious to look for and use an unfamiliar word, by the way. For every word we use there was a first time we used it, and there’s no reason why you should stop adopting new vocabulary as you develop as a writer. Always look to add new words to your writing repertoire.

If you’re resistant to all this, it could be that you don’t yet love words quite enough. That’s fine. Words are our tools, but some writers take years to appreciate their true value and beauty.

Go find a great looking book about words. It might enable you to see words in a new light. Maybe 500 Words You Should Know, by Caroline Taggart. Or How to Sound Clever, by Hubert van den Bergh. These came up in a quick search, and I’ve not read them, but there are dozens more. A new one is Betrumped: The Surprising History of 3000 Long-Lost, Exotic and Endangered Words, by Edward Allhusen, which looks a delight.

Do you have a favourite book about words? Has it helped you find the right words in your writing?

Comments 4

  • This is interesting. There are always adequate words to describe our situations. We should take time to get them out. This is quite informative.

    • I’m glad you thought so! Yes, that word should always be there. And if it isn’t … then perhaps we should be confident enough to invent it! 🙂

  • Just added the Reverse Dictionary to my Christmas list (plus one for my nephew, the other writer in my family). Thanks for the recommendation.

    • They’re great! I’m jealous that you’ve got an experience to look forward to that I can no longer have …. sitting down with a reverse dictionary and enjoying it for the first time!

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