4 Tricks for Picking the Perfect Word

picking the perfect wordOne of Charles Schulz’s incisive “Snoopy at the typewriter” strips from his Peanuts cartoon features poor ol’ Snoopy laboring away, sweating and smacking himself in the forehead. Finally, he turns to his typewriter and taps out, “The.” With a lofty look, he explains, “A good writer will sometimes search hours for just the right word.”

At times, that search feels like groping in the dark. How do we know which word is the “right” word?

Ultimately, the answer depends upon you, as the author, and the demands of whatever sentence you’re writing. There’s no such thing as the “right” word; there are just good words appropriately used.

4 Linguistic Techniques to Help You in Picking the Perfect Word

Today, let’s explore four sophisticated linguistic techniques for picking the perfect word in a way that won’t cost you all the sweat and labor our pal Snoopers had to endure.

1. Alliteration

What is it?

Repetition of beginning consonant sounds.

How is it used?

I used alliteration in the title of the post (“4 Tricks for Picking the Perfect Word”). I could have said “4 Tricks for Choosing the Perfect Word” or “4 Tricks for Picking the Right Word.” Both choices would have been more than sufficient. But neither would have given me the pleasing phonetic significance of alliteration. Remember, alliteration doesn’t demand words begin with the same letter, just the same sound.

For example:

Cara kept the chimera at bay.

2. Assonance

What is it?

Repetition of vowel sounds.

How is it used?

The post title contains assonance in its rhyming words (“4 Tricks for Picking the Perfect Word”). However, assonance can be just as powerful—sometimes more so—in non-rhyming words.

For example:

The red heifer looked left as I set down the lemonade for the referee.

3. Consonance

What is it?

Repetition of internal consonant sounds.

How is it used?

Again, we find an example in the post title (“4 Tricks for Picking the Perfect Word”). But, again, the possibilities aren’t limited to rhymes. We can use the technique to gain a more subtle (and often subconscious) effect through non-rhyming words.

For example:

Suspicious as ever, the assassin sussed out the mafia bosss safe house.

4. Onomatopoeia

What is it?

Representation of sound through phonetic imitation.

How is it used?

I wasn’t able to find a suitable use of onomatopoeia for the post title (kablooey, snap, and meow just didn’t quite fit). This technique can easily become overbearing if used incorrectly. The whampow-holy-barking-dogs-Batman! approach of comic books isn’t often appropriate in written fiction. However, when used with a little more restraint, the accessible power of onomatopoeic words can infuse sizzle into your prose.

For example:

Whapping its wings against the cage, the parrot squawked at the annoying cackling of the neighboring magpie.

These four simple techniques can instantly raise your writing to a new level of effectiveness. For all their subtle power, they’re easy to implement, and they offer some fun and original solutions to Snoopy’s agonized hours of word searching.

Wordplayers, tell me your opinions! Have you ever consciously used these techniques in picking the perfect word? Tell me in the comments!

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About K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland

K.M. Weiland is the award-winning and internationally-published author of the acclaimed writing guides Outlining Your Novel, Structuring Your Novel, and Creating Character Arcs. A native of western Nebraska, she writes historical and fantasy novels and mentors authors on her award-winning website Helping Writers Become Authors.

Comments

  1. I consciously use assonance and alliteration to help the flow of the writing. I also keep the Oxford English Dictionary on hand so I can find new words when I feel like I need to use something different.

  2. Mostly no. Onomatopoeia I have used — there are a surprising number of words in the English language that use this. But the other two rhetorical devices require a strength in auditory learning, and that’s my weakest area. If I tried either one, I’d end up way over doing it because I can’t really tell if it’s just right.

    Not sure if you’ve seen this, but here’s A Handbook of Rhetorical Devices: http://www.virtualsalt.com/rhetoric.htm

  3. Great overview of these techniques. When I took a grad course in fiction and we had to write (and read aloud) our own poetry, the exercise really underscores these for me. Reading your work aloud is a good way to test whether you’ve under or overused the technique, too.

  4. Great post, K.M. I make use of all of these techniques in my writing, although I’ll admit to being addicted to alliteration and, at times, having to ax some of my awesome attempts to use it. =)

  5. @Miss Cole: Alliteration is probably the one I consciously use most often as well.

    @Linda: Looks like an interesting site. Thanks for sharing. I’m definitely a stronger visual learner than I am an auditory learner myself.

    @Kelly: I agree. Reading your work aloud can bring it into a whole new perspective. Being able to hear it really helps an author get a feel for its rhythm and flow.

    @Keli: I’m very fond of alliteration too. But it’s one of the easiest to overuse. Too much of it and your sentences start sounding like something out of a bad children’s book.

  6. My first critter told me alliteration is a bad thing, so I’ve always tried to avoid it. I’ll have to give this more thought.

    Great pic today. 😉

  7. Alliteration (like any of these techniques) *can* be a bad thing if used to excess. If every word in your sentence begins with the same letter, you not only lose the intended effect, you also start steering into the waters of unintentional comedy.

  8. As you suggest, using them in moderation is key. I have to say that alliteration is my favorite technique, which I purposefully employed in my main WIP, the Gardener of Eden trilogy. Each book, naturally, needed a subtitle, and I wanted the subtitles to have a ‘gardening/crop’ theme, as well as show growth (literal and figurative) across the series, so i turned to alliteration for help.

    The first book is “Sowing the Seed”, the second “Fruits of the Flesh”, and the third is simply “Hell’s Harvest”. (Gardener of Eden is a supernatural thriller based on the angels mentioned in Matt 13:39 – with creative license…of course)

  9. Nice use of the technique. It’s subtle enough not to draw attention itself, while still benefiting from the pleasing harmony of the beginning letters.

  10. I am a big big fan of alliteration and actually find myself writing like so without being aware of it, only realizing it when I go back to review and edit. It’s part of the art of writing, I feel, and it’s beautiful. Onomatopoeia seems to be more effective when describing something strong or vivid, and I usually save those for action scenes or when trying to create a serene scene. Can’t help myself!

  11. I love onomatopoeic words. They create verbs vivid enough to bring the scene to life for the readers – and all from one little word! But, you’re right, that there’s a time and a place for onomatopoeic words – and a time and a place where they don’t belong. This is an easy technique to overuse, since readers can begin to feel as if they’re being bombarded with sensual stimuli.

  12. I think I use alliteration the most and most often unconsciously rather than on purpose. Thanks for these, Katie! And I love you new look!

  13. Thanks for stopping by, Lynn! Sometimes just being aware of these techniques and having them in the backs of our minds is the best way of letting them effectively trickle into our writing.

  14. Good post, and great techniques that add to any writer’s arsenal. I think picking the right word also depends on the mood you are trying to set in a scene, or even upon the character’s point of view. For example, the description of something as simple as a window could depend upon who is looking at it…from someone lying in a hospital bed, to a burglar, to a mother wanting to open up a window on a spring day after a long, cold winter.

  15. Definitely. If the description isn’t actively influencing the story – through tone and nuance – it’s not pulling its weight and probably doesn’t even deserve to be included in the story.

  16. I think everyone uses onomatopoeia, whether they know it (or can pronounce it) or not. Of the examples in this list, I use alliteration the most. I enjoy brief bursts of it from time to time–just two words with the same initial consonant can sound appealing, even clever, to a reader, I think.

    I see you finally worked out your blogging dilemma–and I also see you worked it out beautifully. This is a fantastic look, Kathryn. Congratulations!

  17. Carl Sandburg had a great quote about slang being “a language that rolls up its sleeves, spits on its hands and goes to work.” Onomatopoeia (despite its highfalutin name) is similar: hard-working, punchy words that carry the burden of their sentences.

    BTW, thanks for your input in the early stages of my blog redux decisions. You were very helpful – even though I decided to stay with Blogger. 😉

  18. Not consciously, other than the onomatopoeia. I should try to use them more! I am a stickler, however, for choosing the right word for tone, meaning, etc. I can spend thirty minutes sometimes looking through a thesaurus, then comparing the true meanings to the dictionary, to get just the right choice. I think I tweeted recently about using the word “lech” in my writing, which was perfect in its placement, in my honest opinion. 🙂

  19. So you and old Snoopy have a lot in common? 😉 I use the Encarta dictionary software on my computer to do quick word look-ups while writing, but I try not to get *too* involved in word choice during the first draft. While editing, my dictionary and thesaurus are my best friends.

  20. Yes, I’d say we do have a lot in common! 🙂 I think, though, to find the right word in a first or second draft it helps set the tone, so, depending on the circumstance, I’ll go the extra mile to find the right word.

    Of course, there are times when it’s a time-waster. I seem to be good at finding those sometimes. 😉

  21. Only once, when I realized many of the chapter titles started with the letter ‘R’ and went for the pattern.

    Often, though, I’ll use them without realizing, especially if I’m in the zone.

    I’m a storyteller. As in, live, without notes, to an audience, with much preparation and rehearsal. You develop an ear for it.

    Also, the way the passage would sound if read out loud changes the way we read it silently. It’s subtle, but a passage that sounds good when read out loud is easier to read and comprehend silently. (That’s for enjoying fiction. If you need to remember details, things that slow you down help put it into long-term memory.)

  22. @Liberty: Yeah, I *say* I do “quick” word look-ups during the first draft, but I’ve also been known to get sucked into long hunts as well. I try to keep myself on track during that first draft though.

    @Cricket: Reading your story out loud (or, even better, having someone else read it aloud to you) is a fabulous trick for getting an objective feel for the rhythm of the prose. If something doesn’t work when read aloud, chances are good it just plain doesn’t work.

  23. Yes, I have and I always wondered if I was doing the right thing. I do find myself using my Thesaurus more often. I am sometimes frustrated at my stagnant vocabulary.

  24. I love vocabulary. When I was fourteen or so, I started carrying a slip of paper in the front of whatever book I was reading. When I found a word I didn’t know, I’d write it on the paper, then look it up and write out the definition the next day. I learned so much doing that.

  25. I must be totally honest with you. I did poorly at high school and like a race horse out of a starting gate, I left as fast as humanly possible. So these things you talk about are sheer honey to me. I am self-taught, and far from being good, I consider myself to be average, but that doesn’t stop me from enjoying the creative process of writing.

    Thank you so very, very much for all these wonderful, insightful nuggets of advice, broken down so perfectly for the likes of myself (although I’m paranoid as to how many faux pas’ I’ve already committed?).

    I’m in love with your web site, and marvel at your knowledge, and command, of the written word we so readily take for granted and accept without question.

    Thank you so much, once again.

  26. Thanks so much for stopping by! I’m glad you’re finding the site useful. As a homeschool alumnus, I consider myself, in large part, to be “self-taught” as well. Sometimes it’s the best way to learn!

  27. Great tips! Use these all the time… 🙂

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