Picking Stronger Words and Watching out for Homonyms
This post is the thirty-first in a series about writing a novel. You can check out the list of past topics at the end of this post.
Last week, I wrote about the different drafts of your novel. And somewhere in there, you are going to evaluate the words you selected. You may want to consider replacing some of the verbs with stronger ones. And because there are many similar words, you will want to make sure you are using the “correct” word.
If you aren’t sure about what I mean by stronger words, here is a simple example.
Ben got a bag of chips from the shelf.
Stronger word choice:
Ben grabbed a bag of chips from the shelf.
Yes, both sentences are very similar. But the key is that in the second example you learn how Ben got the bag. The word “grab” means to “seize something quickly.” When the word “grabbed” is used, you know that not only did Ben get a bag of chips, but you understand how he did it.
So when picking stronger words, you are trying to choose words that give the reader more information. Instead of talking loudly, you shout. Instead of hitting hard, you wallop and instead of smile smugly, you smirk.
Take a look at this example:
Seething with anger, Sarah took the book from him. She walked out the door, closing it loudly as she left.
Stronger word choices:
Sarah snatched the book out of his hand. She stomped out the door, slamming it behind her.
The second example gives a clearer picture of what happened. You know by her actions that Sarah is either angry or annoyed.
In the second half of the first example, instead of picking a strong verb, an adverb was used. As a writer, using the occasional adverb is fine but in reality, you should aim to use strong verbs (as in the second example.) The use of a lot of adverbs shows lazy writing.
Quick grammar refresher: An adverb modifies a verb, adjective or other adverbs. They answer the question where, when, how and to what extent. You don’t have to eliminate all adverbs but if an adverb can easily be eliminated without change the meaning of the passage, then it should be removed.
Of course, though sometimes a stronger verb will work better, there are times when a simple word is fine. Characters can walk. They don’t always have to stomp, dash, hurry, shuffle, scurry or whatever.
You want to pick the best word for the scene. This doesn’t mean you need a big, fancy or unusual word. It means picking the right word to say the right thing in just the right way. It doesn’t mean rushing to a thesaurus to sprinkle your book with synonyms when a simpler word will do.
As you revise your draft, examine your word choices. You might ask yourself, “Is this really what I mean?” or “Is there a better word to convey this so my readers will understand what is happening?” Finding words that capture your meaning and convey it to your readers is challenging. But you can tighten up your writing by making sure you are picking strong words.
The English language is filled with homonyms – words that are spelled and pronounced the same way but mean different things (example #1) or can be words that are spelled differently and mean different things but are pronounced the same (example #2). It is this second example that you have to watch out for in your writing. And you cannot count on grammar checking programs or even proofreaders to catch these mistakes every time.
Here are some examples using the correct word and then followed by the often-misused word and the definitions of the two.
Harold’s face twitched with a nervous tic.
tic – a periodic spasm
tick – a small bloodsucking arachnid or perhaps the sharp, recurring click (as of a clock)
The wording piqued my interest.
Pique – aroused or excited
Peaked – to be at the maximum (interest has peaked and will probably soon decline)
Two vases of flowers stood on either side of the altar.
Altar -the structure in a place of worship
Alter – to change something
She wore a two carat diamond.
Carat – unite of weight for jewels
Caret – a small wedged-shaped mark (^) used by editors to indicate where text should be inserted
She grabbed a box of stationery.
Stationery – writing materials
Stationary – not moving
Donna always sticks to her principles.
Principle – code of conduct
Principal – (noun) the leader of a school or main sum of money owed on a loan OR (adjective) describes something that is prominent or important (our principal concern)
His office was little more than a cubicle.
Cubicle – a small partitioned space
Cubical – shaped like a cube with six equal square sides
My husband believed in giving his staff free rein.
Rein – to guide (or in this case to give complete freedom)
Reign – to rule as a sovereign power
Rain – water falling to earth or a continuous descent or inflicting of anything (a rain of blows)
The car has dual air bags.
Dual – two
Duel – a contest between two people
The new curtains complemented the room nicely.
Complemented – went well with, enhanced
Complimented – to give a praise
Registration fees may be waived for low income families.
Waived – voluntarily forgo something
Waved – flapping up and down
The police arrived at the grisly scene.
Grisly – gruesome, ghastly
Grizzly – having hair that is gray
She felt as if she had been put through the wringer.
Wringer- a devise for wringing something out, squeezing it dry
Ringer – a person or thing that makes a ringing noise
His lawsuit claimed there had been a breach of contract.
Breach – violation
Breech – bottom or back end of something (a breech birth)
There are MANY other words – too many to list here – that often get mixed up. When in doubt, use the dictionary to double check that you are using the correct word.