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Words That Earn Their Keep

Economists talk about Gresham’s Law—in simple terms, bad money drives out good. When a country goes off the gold or silver standard in favor of paper money, many people hoard gold or silver coins. Which would excite you more, a shoebox full of paper money, or a handful of $20-gold pieces? For most of us, gold coins have more pizazz, more sparkle, and provide greater sensory pleasure.

So it is with words. When inferior language proliferates, it drives out the best. A steady diet of dumbed-down language in television reality shows, sitcoms, and news reporting makes us all too willing to settle for mediocrity rather than taking those extra steps to claim the richness our language affords. Shakespeare’s grasp of the subtleties of human behavior isn’t all that keeps his plays read, taught, and in production. The rich language of his time, which was the Bard’s stock-in-trade, also helps keep his plays alive.

You decide which does more for a story: “Ephraim walked into the room and sat down in the nearest chair,” or “Ephraim sidled into the room and took the uncomfortable chair furthest from the fire.” Thoughtful word choices let us know that Ephraim may be timid, or feels unworthy, or lacks confidence, or has something to hide. Given a few more specifics, we find the character interesting and want to know more.

Choosing the best verb is one often overlooked way to enrich writing. In place of the pedestrian “walk,” think of all the better choices: Roget’s Thesaurus offers ramble, stroll, promenade, saunter, march, parade, tramp, hike, tread, pace, step. I think of plenty of others, such as storm, edge, ease, trip, blunder. Apt verbs add punch to your text and may relieve you of feeling the need for an ­–ly adverb, when your sentence will be stronger without it.

Teachers of writing caution against over-reliance on adjectives and adverbs, yet well-chosen adjectives give your pages life. Would you rather picture yourself in “a beautiful forest” or in “moist, silent, hemlock-fragrant woods”? (Three adjectives in one sentence is more than enough, though.) Even if you’re reading a fairy tale, the second version creates a more immediate scene. Try spending a little time with the dictionary and thesaurus to rediscover some of the myriad useful words you’ve neglected, then go through a passage of your own writing highlighting the lazy words and replace them with words that earn their keep. Finding the best word takes extra time and thought, but the payoff is well worth the investment.

By | 2018-05-03T21:05:17+00:00 |BTW, The Writer’s Craft|Comments Off on Words That Earn Their Keep

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Betsy White is a writer and editor who specializes in line editing, copy editing, manuscript critique, and book collaboration. Interested in working with Betsy as your editor? Please click here