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Mining the Thesaurus

“A word fitly spoken is like apples of gold in pictures of silver.”


If you want to be a writer, it’s generally a plus to have a large vocabulary. Characters often enjoy being called enigmatic, loquacious, or winsome. It sounds better than being plain old mysterious, talkative, or cheerful. However, it’s as important for a writer to know when to use words as it is to know which words to use. An author’s voice is not just word choices, it is how those words are strung together, who they are aimed at, and just who is doing the aiming.

Some studious scribes craft elegantly joined phrases into fluid sentences that ebb and flow with the tides of inner passion and lift the heart on undulating waves of feeling merging reader and wordsmith in synergistic vibrations that positively shape the unseen, and as yet untold, secret realms of the multiverse that emanate from the author’s mind. Other writers use words to put the reader into the story.

Both types of writers want to show the reader a story—probably not the same story, and probably not the same readers. Who the reader is and the words he might use must be on the writer’s mind. So too, must be the words of the character speaking. I’ve been told that I’ve used words to describe characters that are offensive. It’s true. What is more, I did it on purpose, not to offend, but because it was a word my character would say.

In my thinking, realism is better than social correctness. In the same vein, I used more acceptable synonyms elsewhere in the story. The objective in doing so was to create shock value when and where it was needed. Carpet bombing with profanity and slurs numb the reader and in the words of an old adage familiarity breeds contempt.

Knowing your characters includes more than knowing their age, what they look like, and what they are going to do. It also means knowing what they will say and how they will say it in any given situation. My friend Ed Landry has a college education and speaks rather well for a small-town, Louisiana sheriff. However, when it suits his purpose, he’s not above using a bit of good ol’ Cajun boy dialect.

Economy of words calls for the writer to choose not just good words, but the best words. Speaker, context, and hearer all factor into the equation. I don’t always use $50 words, but when I do, I want value for my money.

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