The Right Word vs. a Similar Word, or Why the Thesaurus Is Not Always Your Friend

“The difference between the almost right word & the right word is really a large matter–it’s the difference between the lightning bug and the lightning.”

–Mark Twain

Writing fiction is an interesting challenge, because it means you’re doing two things at once: you’re writing, and you’re telling a story. As a writer, you care about getting the right words on the page, but as a storyteller . . . sometimes it’s all about getting the story down on the page before that really hot argument your hero and heroine are having gets away from you (or you miss your deadline). In a perfect world, you’d get the story down on paper and then read through the entire manuscript again, punching up the dull bits, reading aloud for stilted language, and generally making sure you said what you meant to say.

Meanwhile, back in the real world world, here are a few suggestions for making sure you’ve used the right words, and not just similar words.

1) Watch out for weasel words: words that fill space without having much meaning on their own. Once you’ve written that story, consider using your word processor to do a search through your manuscript for them, and any place you see one, see if you can reword your sentence to be more descriptive. Every author has particular words they have trouble with, but here’s a list to get you started: some, lots, thing, anything, something, stuff, basically, kind of, got, interesting, very, really, still.

2) When in doubt, read aloud. I know that if you’re submitting 50,000-100,000 words of novel, you’re not going to read the whole thing aloud from beginning to end. It would be too time-consuming. But whenever possible, at least read your dialogue aloud. Narration can also be stilted and awkward, but narration is more forgiving than dialogue is.

3) Love your thesaurus, but know that it isn’t perfect. When you’re trying to make your writing more interesting or avoid an overused word or phrase, look it up in a thesaurus or search for synonyms online. Once you’ve chosen one, take one extra step: look it up in the dictionary and read the actual definition. Make darn sure that you don’t refer to a big, strapping, alpha male hero as having a “demure” smile because you didn’t want to use “shy,” not when demure is generally only used for women.

Your hero will thank you. And so will your editor. 😉

cross-posted at The Editor’s Pen


About April L'Orange

April L'Orange is a hard-working editor and author of science fiction and fantasy. She began life as a terribly serious little old woman and has been growing younger ever since. When she's not writing, she can often be found painting bits of her house or beating back the yard with a machete. She and her husband currently live in upstate New York, where they are owned by three cats and the Squirrel Mafia. She's published short stories in anthologies available from Escape Collective Press and Pink Narcissus Press. For more information, please visit

Posted on November 7, 2011, in Word Choice and tagged . Bookmark the permalink. 2 Comments.

  1. I enjoyed the article and I particularly love your ‘about the author’. 🙂

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