All in a Word

Sean O'Mordha   February 27, 2017   No Comments on All in a Word

When first entering the field of professional writing in 1961 as a newspaper reporter, the reading level of Americans was 5th grade, and that’s how we crafted a story. In the ensuing fifty-six years it hasn’t gotten much better. National statistics are rather glum. Currently . . .

14% of adults read below the 5th grade level.
50% of adults cannot read at the eighth grade level.

Limiting word choice to describe something can become a challenge for authors. This was brought to mind while looking over posts encouraging the use of “colorful” descriptors. As one writer states: “Plenty of tired adjectives are available to spoil a good sentence, but when you find just the right word for the job, enrichment ensues.” The person then gives a long list of adjectives.

Bilious: unpleasant, peevish
Boorish: crude, insensitive
Calamitous: disastrous
Caustic: corrosive, sarcastic; a corrosive substance
Cerulean: sky blue
Comely: attractive
Concomitant: accompanying
Contumacious: rebellious
Corpulent: obese
Crapulous: immoderate in appetite
Defamatory: maliciously misrepresenting

Use any of these bolded words and you will lose readers no matter how good the story. That does not mean that they cannot be used, and a few sprinkled through the story is a sneaky way to expand a reader’s vocabulary. The “trick” is to define them in the sentence.

“Ralph was corpulent, obese as a walrus, but fun to watch on the ice.”
“To say Ralph was boorish, crude and insensitive, would be an understatement.”
“The road serpentined through the mountains, wiggling around like a snake on caffeine.”  (Note how serpentine was changed from an adjective to verb. Thank you Mr. Shakespeare.)

If it is possible to use the same word a time or two later, all the better, as that will help cement the new word to their vocab list. And the best part, finding a good adjective is easy. When first beginning to write in high school, Roget’s Thesaurus literally reside in my lap. Now, it is a mouse click away. I do not mean those simplistic lists provided by word processors. I use an open source processor on a Linux operating system with a third-party link to Dictionary.com and Thesaurus.com. Highlight, click, the list pops up, otherwise, have your favorite search engine keyed to either of these resources—doesn’t make any difference. They are linked together—and switch between it and your manuscript.

Should you do that on the fly while in the first draft? Doesn’t matter. You know in your head where the story is going, and what you want to say. Looking up an adjective might suggest a more exciting direction to write the sentence.

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