If you strip all the articles, pronouns, conjunctions, forms of to be, and to say from your story, you’re still left with a sizable number of words. The remaining nouns, verbs, adjectives, and adverbs are ultimately selected by you. When you’re writing your first draft you’re probably on autopilot and the words come naturally. But when you go back to revise, you may decide that some of your choices were weak. Maybe another word would bring your scene to life more vividly. So how do you go about choosing that ‘new improved’ word?
Some alternative words will pop into your head, or you might browse a thesaurus looking for choices. A thesaurus can give a jump start to your brain, but it can be dangerous to base a decision on. Although the words grouped in the thesaurus are similar in meaning, they’re by no means equal. Like colors, words come in many shades. They have nuances and subtle differences. An artist can’t use red as a substitute for pink, and a writer must be just as discriminating in choosing his words.
Most words have associations that I call ‘baggage.’ These associations can create ‘ripples’ that spread through your story. If you chose well these ‘ripples’ can be used to your advantage. They can foreshadow events and add layers of depth. Let’s look at an example everyone will be familiar with. The word ‘gay’ originally meant happy or light-hearted. It has since come to refer to homosexuals. The association is so strong that it’s almost impossible to use the word for its original meaning. Using it will undoubtedly cause a ripple in the reader’s mind. Depending on the topic of your story, you may or may not find this ripple useful.
Recently I wrote: “She threaded her way through the crowded market.” I could have used wandered or walked, but the conflict of the story involved string. By using threaded, I sent a ripple foreshadowing and connecting to string. Similarly in another story I wrote: “All except one melted into the meadow.” I could have used disappeared or blended, but I chose melted. As the story develops snow becomes an important part and by using melted I set it up. Many of these clues or ripples won’t be noticed consciously by the reader, but they exist, building connections and layers.
So the next time you are looking for the right word, try this exercise. Make a ‘ripple chart.’ Use free association and see what ideas the words set off in your mind. Of course some associations are cultural or generational and won’t have the same effect on all readers. But if you stick to common associations most people will share them. Drop the right pebbles into your pond and the word ripples will strengthen your stories.
As you can see from these two ripple charts, I associate jog with fitness and trot with horses. I would keep that in mind if I was writing a sentence and didn’t want to use the more generic verb run.