Re: I can't describe it.....aaah what's the word?! Keep it simple or smart?

#1
While writing my novel, CLEANING UP THE FUTURE, I have had moments where I am sitting down wondering what word would fit best into a sentence. What word would be the smoothest choice? What word would make me as the author seem super intellectual?

Do you keep it simple or search a thesaurus? 
 
One of my recent incidents, I spent several minutes wondering if I should use the word flinch or wince or jumped......aaaaah I kept changing the sentence over and over. Am I the only one?

Re: I can't describe it.....aaah what's the word?! Keep it simple or smart?

#2
•No, you aren't the only one, precision verbs are a great way to show what you intend to happen, you just need to pick the best option.
•I sometimes have those 'word on the tip of my tongue' moments too that would fit perfectly into the situation but sometimes can't think of that exact word.
•Then those: I've heard this word in this kind of situation before, what did that word mean again (and then look it up in a dictionary).
Just practice and it will get easier.
^^

Re: I can't describe it.....aaah what's the word?! Keep it simple or smart?

#3
You want to use the best word in the context of the story. What you do not do is choose words that make you sound smart. It's very obvious when a writer uses a thesaurus to make them sound smart. It's not a good thing. It can also make your writing sound pretentious too. So don't do that. If you feel as if you have a lack of words, build your vocabulary so you know what each words mean. 

I use a thesaurus for two things. One is when I've used the same word twice within the same paragraph.  Then when I can't think of the word I want to use. I know a related word but not the word I want because it's on the tip of my tongue. It helps jump my brain. 

Re: I can't describe it.....aaah what's the word?! Keep it simple or smart?

#4
The last time I remember making intense use of a thesaurus -- as in, over and over in the same writing project; not just once or twice per day -- was when I was working on a poem that was meant to mimic the meter of Edgar Allan Poe's "The Raven." Doing it right meant I had to count the syllables in each line, and have lots of internal rhymes, and so forth. These strict specifications meant that sometimes I'd type out a Very Rough Draft of one stanza, and then ask myself: "Okay, so now I know what I want each line of this new stanza to mean, but it would work better if I squeezed in another rhyme in the middle of that line, and also trimmed out a few syllables in another line. For instance, let's take a careful look at a word in the middle of Line 2 -- is there another word I could use, with the same general meaning, which would actually rhyme with the last word of Line 1?"

Then I'd use a thesaurus to look up the word I wanted to change, and I'd also use a rhyming dictionary to look at all possible rhymes for the word I wanted the new one to rhyme with, and eventually I'd have something that satisfied me. This process was how I ended up using such words as "squall" and "gaffe" in my poem. I already knew exactly what they meant, but I honestly believe I had never before used either of those words in a piece of creative writing. Nor in casual conversation in real life! But they both meant things that made sense in the context of what I was trying to say, and they helped a line fit the syllable count, and they rhymed with the other things I needed them to rhyme with. 

With that said, I also agree with LadyAnder's point about repetition. I know there are times when I need to find a synonym to avoid overusing the same word. For instance, if I have the hero thinking, "He's a much smoother talker than I am!" in one paragraph, and then I need to further develop that point in the next paragraph, I won't want to keep using "smooth" or "talk." I'll want to find other words to reflect the same general idea, and if good substitutes don't spring into my head right away -- not words that fit the "voice" of the viewpoint character, let's say, even though my readers would understand what they meant -- then yes, I'll reach for a thesaurus and probably look up synonyms for such words as "eloquent" and "persuasive." I may eventually find myself being reminded of some other colorful word which I rarely use -- "glib," for instance -- and say to myself, "Yeah, that works! I'll rewrite that next paragraph to use 'glib' to help hammer home the point that this other guy is extremely good at making everything he says sound very reasonable and sincere, even if it isn't!"

Re: I can't describe it.....aaah what's the word?! Keep it simple or smart?

#5
Repetition is a huge quality killer when it comes to good prose. Even published authors screw that up: for example, David Weber in his Honorverse novels uses phrases like "said quietly" or "said softly" about 50-100 times per novel. The moment you notice this ... it'll drive you crazy. So, yes, maybe someone "whispers" instead, or "speaks in low tones", or you know, maybe they do something a bit differently, like perhaps they "mumble under their breath", or ... depends on the context, of course. And thesaurus can give you inspiration, so, sure, use it. 

But at the same time purple prose isn't any better; and complex word choices just for the sake of using those words usually amounts to exactly that. Sometimes people just say something. Sometimes a tree is just a tree. And so on. There's beauty in simplicity too ;) 

Re: I can't describe it.....aaah what's the word?! Keep it simple or smart?

#6
LadyAnder Wrote: I use a thesaurus for two things. One is when I've used the same word twice within the same paragraph.  Then when  I can't think of the word I want to use. I know a related word but not the word I want because it's on the tip of my tongue. It helps jump my brain.

Spot on. The only time you should look for a word that makes someone look smart is if that's a habit that the character you created has. The narrative voice's job is to be invisible. Hard to be invisible when you're throwing ten dollar words where a dime will do. 

Re: I can't describe it.....aaah what's the word?! Keep it simple or smart?

#7
I've seen it suggested that sometimes it can be a good idea to stretch your literary muscles by deliberately switching whatever your "standard style" appears to be. For instance, if you normally like to write short, terse sentences of prose, with a bare minimum of description of the viewpoint character's physical environment in most cases, and very few metaphors or similes, then you might try to write an entire story with lots of long-winded, complex sentences, including lots of descriptive passages which might include regular use of metaphors and similes. 

Or, if your normal style is something else -- something long-winded, for instance -- then you might try to write something with a heavy emphasis on those short, terse sentences I mentioned. (Or whatever would constitute a serious change of pace from your usual habits.) 

The idea is that this exercise forces you to consciously examine just what it is that you normally do, so that you can deliberately do it very differently. After you finish a "practice story" in that other style, you should ask yourself if you've learned something useful about how you could at least modify your normal style to gain some of the benefits of a different approach. 

Re: I can't describe it.....aaah what's the word?! Keep it simple or smart?

#8
Thanks for all the feedback. I appreciate getting a look into how everyone writes and handles issues like this. 
I definitely don’t want my writing to come off pretentious or long winded. I will keep an eye on checking myself when I use the same word over and over. When I edit, I do catch myself repeating sometimes and have to start switching to synonyms. Constant battle, and I want to win it.

Re: I can't describe it.....aaah what's the word?! Keep it simple or smart?

#9
You're not supposed to look for overly complicated words that no one knows.  It ruins your fiction because people have to constantly stop and figure out what that word means.  That's not to say there aren't common words with a lot of depth to them, but trying to obsess over finding them isn't going to make or break your fiction.  

If you want something to obsess over, then try taking out "be" verbs.  It makes a huge difference in your writing, but it's absolute hell to do.  I'd recommend only doing your prologue since that's where you'll hook in new readers.  Beyond that it's too much work for me.  
https://www.thebookeditorshow.com/verbs-not-verbs/

Re: I can't describe it.....aaah what's the word?! Keep it simple or smart?

#10
DarkD Wrote: You're not supposed to look for overly complicated words that no one knows.  It ruins your fiction because people have to constantly stop and figure out what that word means.  That's not to say there aren't common words with a lot of depth to them, but trying to obsess over finding them isn't going to make or break your fiction.

I don't think that's quite what 23DN4L meant when he asked for advice about the wisdom of frequently consulting a thesaurus. In other words, I didn't see him saying: "I want to use several words per chapter which most of my readers won't even recognize! Nothing makes me happier than knowing that my readers are frantically looking things up in the dictionary so they can understand what I'm saying! Do the rest of you think that's a great idea?"  :P

I agree with you in principle that if he were doing that several times per chapter, it would be overkill. But on those occasions when I use a thesaurus to find "just the right word for my purposes," I usually end up using a word which I already knew -- it just wasn't one that I used very often, and so it had not instantly leaped into my mind when I was asking myself: "Is there another word I can use in this line that would have just the right flavor for what I want to do?" (Or, as I said in a previous post, sometimes I'm frantically trying to find a word that has the right meaning, and that fits the rhyme scheme of a poem I'm writing.)

When I do it that way, I'm not trying to find a word so obscure that many of my readers will be baffled when they stumble across it for the first time in their lives. I'm just trying to find a word that fits certain parameters which a more common word doesn't. What those parameters are, precisely, will vary from one case to the next. Sometimes trying to make a character sound very well-educated; sometimes trying to avoid repetition; sometimes trying to sound archaic; sometimes trying to make a line of a poem fit the meter; sometimes there's another goal to be met; sometimes two or three of the above, all at once. But I generally write sentences which I hope the typical member of my target audience will understand on the first pass, and I strongly suspect that 23DN4L feels the same way. 

With that said, I will admit that I actually have fond memories of some occasions when I have read stories by very successful authors which have deliberately sprung a very obscure word on me in the course of a conversation. For instance, I think I was a teenager when I first read an old Nero Wolfe mystery (by Rex Stout) in which Wolfe is shocked and disgusted by the discovery that a certain research chemist had convinced his sister to help finance his pet project: A search for a workable "catholicon." I had no idea what that meant. Which Rex Stout probably knew darn well would be true of the vast majority of his readers. But he wanted to stress the point that Nero Wolfe seems to always know what obscure old English words mean. 

Later, I looked up "catholicon" in a dictionary and learned it meant a universal remedy, as in: "one perfect medicine which will somehow cure anything and everything that ails you." (Sort of like a healing potion in a fantasy RPG, come to think of it!) But of course Rex Stout was far too smart to make Wolfe use, or recognize without defining, such obscure words in every scene of every story in which he appeared. That would have gotten obnoxious in a hurry, and Stout's sales figures might have dropped like a rock! (Or, more likely, an editor would have ordered him to tone it down so readers could more easily follow the plot development without constantly getting distracted.)

Re: I can't describe it.....aaah what's the word?! Keep it simple or smart?

#11
Read Feynman's technique. Technobabble may seem cool and inteligent but the readers will likely not a single shit about it. Best way is to explain what was happening as if you're teaching what is happening to a five year old. That, way it gets clear, and the barrier of knowing the technology involved is removed. 

Its like the principle of the wormhole. Watch how the doctor in event horizon explains how his revolutionary method of travel worked. He threw in random cool sounding words like in star trek which the crew didn't give a shit about then explains the general idea of the mechanism of the device that even a young kid listening can understand. 

Here's the scene: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PtyySlBW6kk

Re: I can't describe it.....aaah what's the word?! Keep it simple or smart?

#12
If you contextualize properly, you can get away with using almost any word, real or not, to get a point across. The Jabberwocky by Carol is a great example of an entire story told in mostly nonsense.

One of my favorite sentences in prose refers to a bumble bee as "scribbling" through the air. Is the insect drawing something crude with violent strokes? No; it's flying in the traditional way of bees, zigging and zagging without a discernible pattern, and the verb used is perfect, though not traditionally used to describe such things.

At the end of the day, you're beholden to the tone and intellectual depth of your story. If you've spent fifty pages talking about "a guy on a horse" don't suddenly refer to him as a cataphract and expect the reader not to balk. If, however, you want to talk about waterfalls and occasionally drop the word cataract in the same paragraph where you're refining the qualities of its sound and power, feel free.

And if you're writing some pretentious sonnet or something suitably high-brow, you can rhyme cataphract and cataract line-over-line and make your readers angry because most humans don't know either word :P

It's all about being true to the tone of your prose.