Spellbinding Sentences: 3 Qualities of Masterful Word Choice

A variety of pens by Maureen McLaughlin | via Flickr
by Maureen McLaughlin | via Flickr

Note from Jane: Today’s guest post is excerpted from the recently released Spellbinding Sentences (Writer’s Digest Books) by Barbara Baig.

“She loved expressive words, and treasured them as some girls might have treasured jewels. To her, they were as lustrous pearls, threaded on the crimson cord of a vivid fancy. When she met with a new one she uttered it over and over to herself in solitude, weighing it, caressing it, infusing it with the radiance of her voice, making it her own in all its possibilities forever.”

—Lucy Maud Montgomery, The Story Girl

In a way, every word is like a precious stone, with its own particular qualities: Some words feel heavy, others light; some seem to glitter, others are dull. As writers, we need to know all we can about the words we use; in addition to getting familiar with a word’s denotations and connotations—its meanings—we also need to be able to recognize its qualities, so we can find the right word for our purpose.

Just as a cook needs to know, not just intellectually, but practically, the difference between, say, margarine and butter—the differences in taste and texture and melting temperature—so a writer needs to know the difference in quality between, for instance, the word domicile and the word home, the word food and the word egg, the word surrender and the phrase wave the white flag. When we add to our knowledge of denotation and connotation a practical understanding of the qualities of words, we can make even more skillful use of their power. Knowing the qualities of words gives us an essential tool for choosing the words we want to use.

What are some of these qualities of words?

1. Formal vs. Informal

When we write, we often need to consider the degree of formality our words should have, depending on the circumstances in which they will be read. Formal language tends to be language that is rather stiff and mannered, like a butler in a novel about the English upper classes. Words that feel and sound formal are usually Latinate words, made up of several syllables: tendentious, prepossessing, rubicund. Informal words are typically of Anglo-Saxon origin (or Norman words that have been Anglicized) and usually contain only one or two syllables.

The degree of formality in the language you use in your writing helps create your voice on the page, just as it does when you speak. It also creates what’s called the tone of your work. This tone has to be appropriate, not to an occasion, but to the purpose of your writing. Listen to the difference in the voices of these two novelists:

Nell could not help smiling at the naiveté with which Letty classed these trivialities with her marriage, but before she could make any attempt to show her sister-in-law how the very fondness which led Cardross to indulge her in small matters would stiffen his resolve not to permit her (as he thought) to throw herself away in a marriage doomed to failure, Farley, her butler, had entered the room, bearing on a salver a sealed billet, and on his countenance the expression of one who not only brought evil tidings but had foreseen from the outset that this was precisely how it would be.

—Georgette Heyer, April Lady

But by the time they reached the morgue it was too late. The ID had been completed and everyone had gone home. Rebus stood on the Cowgate and looked longingly back toward the Grassmarket. Some of the pubs there would still be open, the Merchant’s Bar, for one. But he got back into the car instead and asked Davidson to take him home. He felt tired all of a sudden. God, he felt tired.

—Ian Rankin, Let It Bleed

The differences in the two voices come in part from the way each writer puts sentences together; but word choice is also key. Heyer, who is re-creating for her readers the world of upper-class Londoners in Regency England, makes use of relatively formal words like naiveté, trivialities, indulge, resolve, countenance. Rankin, who is bringing to his reader’s mind the world of an alcoholic police detective in contemporary Edinburgh, uses very ordinary words like late and looked and tired. In each case, the author has chosen words appropriate to his or her purpose—in this case, the creation of a particular fictional world and the people who inhabit that world.

The formality or informality of the words we choose also helps us create the voices of people, other than the author, on the page. If we have people talking in our writing, whether they are real people or invented characters, the words we provide them with will help make real their individual voices. For, just as our choice of clothing creates a particular style and helps other people recognize us, so do our spoken words show who we are. Skilled writers know this, and choose words for their characters that will make sense for those particular people and will help reveal what kind of people they are.

And so, Heyer’s characters, London aristocrats of the early 19th century, talk like this:

“Yes, I dashed well do call it that!” replied his lordship, his eye kindling. “Besides, it’s all slum! I may have to listen to that sort of flummery from Mama, but I’ll be damned if I will from you! What’s more, it’s coming it a trifle too strong!”

Rankin’s detective, John Rebus, talks quite differently (and with considerably fewer words):

“Flower’s got a point though, sir,” said Rebus, covering his boss’s embarrassment. “It’s just that he’s got the tact of a tomcat. I mean, somebody’ll have to fill in. How long’s Frank going to be out of the game?”

2. General vs. Specific

You can hear, and even feel, the difference in quality between general and specific words in even the most basic of sentences. Just listen to the difference between I love sports and I love baseball, or between We were served good food and We were served lobster salad with fresh-baked rolls.

It’s this attention to detail that usually separates spoken from written language. When we talk, we typically rely on generalities: We had a good time or The food was delicious. Perhaps we talk this way because we’re in a hurry, we’re not sure our listeners even want details, we’ve been taught that we can’t talk too much or we’ll bore people. Whatever the reasons, most adults in this culture tend to have only general words in their word hoards. While this may not be a problem in ordinary conversation, in writing we’ll be at a serious disadvantage if we have nothing but general words to use.

That’s because general words can communicate in only vague ways: Have a nice day. General statements are often called “empty” because they contain little or no content: It was a great film. Jane is a nice person. While we can get away with such statements in conversation—though no one who speaks only in generalities could be called a masterful conversationalist—when we write, if we want to communicate well, we must use specifics. Specifics give readers sensory details, statistics, examples, particulars. They provide the substance of all good writing.

Suppose, for instance, that you want to write a few sentences describing a lake you visited recently. You don’t want to settle for generalizations like beautiful or lovely. But as you try to come up with your sentences, you find yourself struggling. Why is this happening?

There are two possibilities. Either your word hoard is poor in words specific enough to help you make your description, or—just as important—while you were at the lake, you didn’t pay enough attention to what was around you. You didn’t collect enough sensory information—colors, quality of light, feel of the water, and so on—to be able to call the place vividly to mind now as you write about it.

You might find yourself in the same kind of struggle with other subjects as well. Suppose you want to write about why Ted Williams was a better baseball player than Willie Mays. Suppose you just know that’s the case—but you have a hard time explaining your view to other people. The problem may be that you lack the words you need. Or it may be that you lack information: the statistics and specific anecdotes to provide content for your argument.

For while you surely can’t communicate well without specific language, you also can’t communicate without specific information, whether that information is sensory details, statistics, anecdotes, or examples. Many people struggle to write because they simply haven’t collected enough material to work with.

Techniques for Using Specifics

Use specifics instead of making a general statement. For example:

[Cooper] was a tall, thin fellow, with a sallow face in which there was not a spot of colour. It was a face all in one tone. He had a large, hooked nose and blue eyes. … [His] large skull, covered with short, brown hair, contrasted somewhat oddly with a weak, small chin. He was dressed in khaki shorts and a khaki shirt, but they were shabby and soiled; and his battered topee had not been cleaned for days.

—W. Somerset Maugham, “The Outstation”

Make a general statement, then follow it with specifics. For example:

Fog everywhere. Fog up the river, where it flows among green aits [small islands] and meadows; fog down the river, where it rolls defiled among the tiers of shipping and the waterside pollutions of a great (and dirty) city. Fog on the Essex marshes, fog on the Kentish heights. Fog creeping into the cabooses of collier-brigs; fog lying out on the yards and hovering in the rigging of great ships; fog drooping on the gunwales of barges and small boats. Fog in the eyes and throats of ancient Greenwich pensioners, wheezing by the firesides of their wards; fog in the stem and bowl of the afternoon pipe of the wrathful skipper, down in his close cabin …

—Charles Dickens, Bleak House

Making your language more specific forces you to come up with more things to say, with more details about your subject. Most of the time, this is a good thing—most inexperienced writers rely too heavily on generalizations. But some of you may feel that you don’t want so much detail in your writing. Making choices about how many specific details to use is one more way that a writer’s style is created.

Some writers love detail. We could call their style elaborate or highly ornamented. The paragraph from Dickens is a good example.

Other writers prefer a more plain style, using the minimum amount of detail necessary to communicate and to create the effect they intend. For instance:

It was late and everyone had left the café except an old man who sat in the shadow the leaves of the tree made against the electric light.

—Ernest Hemingway, “A Clean, Well-Lighted Place”

Do you want to develop a plain style, an ornamented style, or a style somewhere in between? The choice is up to you.

Skilled writers don’t make their choices about how much specific detail to use simply at random. Their choices depend on their particular purpose, on what they are trying to do with their writing. If you give a lot of detail about something, you are inviting your reader to spend time with that “something,” to dwell there for a while. For instance, that paragraph from Bleak House comes on the first page of a thousand-page novel. Dickens wanted to make sure his readers were shown that fog, so that they would experience the fog-like atmosphere that envelops all the events in the story.

3. Abstract vs. Concrete

Our words have yet a third quality that’s important for us to know about and be able to recognize: They can be concrete or abstract. A concrete word is one that conveys to our minds something we can know through the senses, like tree or birdsong. An abstract word gives us something we can know only through the intellect, like justice or hope.

Concrete words speak to our sensory intelligence, by way of our imaginations; they evoke in our minds something real, something we can see or hear, taste or touch. But when we read or hear an abstract word, no pictures will appear in our mind, except by association with the word. Say or read the word justice or the word belief, and the “picture-screen” in your mind will remain blank. Abstract words do not conjure up physical reality; they merely convey concepts and ideas. To understand the difference between abstract and concrete words is to provide oneself with one of a writer’s most powerful tools.

You may already be familiar with the difference in power between concrete and abstract words. But the overuse of abstract words is such a prevailing characteristic of professional, academic, and bureaucratic writing that I want to call attention to it for a moment.

Anyone who’s ever taken a college course, or read a book by a professor, has most likely encountered writing like this:

Though an increasing interest on the part of the educational community is being shown in transpersonal teaching, the literature reflects a lack of empirically based studies concerning the teacher characteristics associated with its adoption. The purpose of this study, therefore, was to attempt to identify characteristics (values, attitudes, and teaching philosophy) pertinent to transpersonal oriented non-public school teachers and to compare and contrast those characteristics to those of public school oriented teachers.

—quoted by Richard Mitchell, The Graves of Academe

What happens in your mind when you read these words? Take a closer look at this passage: How many concrete words has the author used?

Now read this passage:

Meanwhile, at home, we should try to keep out of reach, and even out of sight, valuable or dangerous objects that we don’t want children to touch. At the same time, we should keep on hand a good many objects cheap and durable enough so that a child can touch them and use them; we shouldn’t have to worry if they get broken. Many ordinary household objects would be good presents for small children; an eggbeater, a saucepan, a flashlight. After all, it doesn’t make much sense, in a family that will later spend tens of thousands of dollars on the child’s education, to get upset, and to upset him, because he may ruin something worth twenty-five cents.

—John Holt, How Children Learn

The differences in style between these two passages (both written by educators) are not created by word choice alone, but it’s worth taking careful note of the difference in effect between the first author’s obsession with abstractions and Holt’s more judicious use of them. Can you understand what the first writer is saying? What about the passage from Holt’s book? If you’re like me, you found Holt’s writing clear and comprehensible and the other passage impossible to understand. Holt has successfully communicated, transferred what he had to say from his mind to ours; the other writer has communicated nothing.

Does this mean that we should never use an abstraction? No. Where would we be without words like love or justice or peace? But we need to devote special care to using these words. Abstractions are not precise; they are not specific. They are what I like to call “suitcase words”—words that contain many possible meanings and ideas. (This is why they are such useful tools for writers who want to disguise or hide the truth.) If you want to use abstractions well, you have to know not just their dictionary meanings, but what you mean when you use them. If you write In this situation, we all want justice to be done, or Everybody needs love, you need, first of all, to be sure of your own meaning: What are you trying to say through the abstractions justice or love? Then you need to make your meaning clear to your readers.

Since abstract words, like general words, are vague, the best way to make your meaning clear is to get more specific. Show your reader what you mean by those abstractions by giving specific examples, details, or statistics.

A Final Note

A word’s particular qualities, be they abstract or concrete, general or specific, give that word a particular power. To make good use of this power, we need to think, not only about what we want to say with our words, but also about what we are trying to do with them. Simply putting our thoughts and feelings into words, though it may satisfy us and teach us something, is not enough when we are writing to others. When we write for readers, we have to think about what we want our words to do to them.

Spellbinding SentencesAlthough it’s essential that readers understand what we’re trying to say—confused readers stop turning the pages—it’s equally important that our words move them in some way. Do we want them to laugh? Cry? Hold their breath? Then we need to know how to make use of the different qualities of words. When we can move easily between formal and informal language, general and specific, abstract and concrete, we have the foundation for mastery.

To learn more about crafting masterful sentences, check out Spellbinding Sentences: An Author’s Guide to Achieving Excellence and Captivating Readers or visit WhereWritersLearn.com.

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