Find that Perfect Word: Contemplating Word Choice by Julie Valerie

Continuing with our ever-popular mid-week guest posts, this week’s guest poster is the wonderful Julie Valerie who I met through the 85K Writing Challenge that she runs yearly.

Julie is discussing the importance of word choice.

Writing with clarity and careful attention to word choice is important because words convey meaning. Words have power.

To find the perfect word, consider the following:

  • Denotation
  • Connotation
  • Sensory writing
  • Quality of words
  • Formal, informal, archaic
  • General vs. specific
  • Abstract vs. concrete
  • Words that create word pictures
  • Focus
  • Static vs. moving images
  • Figurative language

Denotation vs. Connotation – the meaning of words

The denotation, or “dictionary definition,” of a word is its primary source of power, so it’s important to get it right.

To confirm denotations of words, consult a dictionary. Dictionaries vary widely in their breadth and depth of word coverage. (Compare an Oxford English Dictionary entry to an entry found in the dictionary “tool” of a word processing program.

The OED routinely devotes more than a page to certain words, whereas an online dictionary may offer only a few words as its description.) Another resource for selecting the perfect word is a thesaurus, which will help you determine if there’s a similar word that’s a better choice than the word you’ve chosen.

When in doubt, cross-reference the synonyms and antonyms you find in a thesaurus with their corresponding dictionary definitions. Using a dictionary and a thesaurus provides a writer with a storehouse of words to select.

Denotations emphasize a word’s explicit meaning, whereas connotations depict the ideas or feelings the word invokes. Connotations can be positive or negative or both positive and negative, depending on the circumstances. Connotations can also convey a public meaning and a private meaning.

A public connotation is a connotation on which most people agree. A private connotation may be unique to the writer, character, and/or story or situation. For example, the public connotation of drinking a glass of chocolate milk tends to be favorable and represents a pleasant experience.

But if your character drank a glass of chocolate milk that was spoiled, and your character threw up, your character’s private connotation of “chocolate milk” may be different from the general worldview found in the novel.

Playing with this public versus private connotation discrepancy can add richness, irony, and/or humor to your story.

Sensory Writing – the experience of words

Writing for the senses is the practice of using words to convey the information we receive through our senses; words that describe what we see, hear, touch, taste, and smell.

Help readers “experience” your stories more fully. In addition to selecting words that convey meaning through the senses, pay attention to syntax (the arrangement of words in a sentence) and decide which words (or objects) in your sentence you wish to convey sensory information about.

For example, you might write: I tasted the sour lemon or the sour taste of the lemon.

The Quality of Words

The words, voice, and tone of your writing may be formal, informal, even archaic, depending on the circumstances. The use of formal versus informal words and syntax is one aspect of a writer’s “voice.”

Likewise, formal versus informal dialogue helps establish character. A deliberate switch from the formal to the informal (or vice versa) draws attention to a specific moment or a specific set of words and can be an effective device for heightening a moment with an element of surprise through language.

Words can be general (car), or specific (Buick sedan). Words can be abstract, referring to intangible things like feelings, concepts, qualities, and ideals (e.g. the notion of “peace” or “justice” is abstract because it classifies rather than names explicitly).

Words can be concrete, which is helpful when describing something with clarity and specificity (Upland cotton periwinkle capris). Consider combining the abstract with the concrete. My Upland cotton periwinkle capris shrunk in my Samsung dryer. Oh, the horrors!

Words that Create Static or Moving Word Pictures

When using words to create a picture in a reader’s mind, decide where you want the focus to be—on Snow White, the witch, or the poisoned apple.

Then, sharpen the words around the focus item to sharpen the picture you wish to create in your reader’s mind. When sharpening, use precise nouns, carefully chosen adjectives or adverbs, and active verbs.

Consider movement (or lack thereof) when creating a picture. Are you seeking a static image in which everything stands still and consolidates into one pivotal moment in time through written description, or are you seeking movement and passage of time and story through narration?

Often, we see a combination of the two. For instance, you can begin with static description (a man holding a gun), followed by narration with movement (the woman grows frightened, then runs away).

Step back from your writing to identify passages of static description (where the story “stops” or “pauses” to make note of something) versus moving narrative (where the story “takes off” or “proceeds toward something”).

How many and what type of words are you devoting to these passages? Choosing words that are static verses moving vastly improves the pacing of a story and is useful when needing to accelerate, slow, or build tension and suspense.

Figurative language is language that uses one set of words to describe another. A simile (Latin, meaning “like”) compares one thing with another thing of a different kind, typically used when making a description more emphatic (e.g. as good as gold or as busy as a bee). When creating a simile, use like or as.

Metaphors, on the other hand, make an implicit, implied or hidden comparison between two entities that share a common characteristic.

Metaphor comes from the Greek word for transfer. Use a metaphor when you want to portray a person, place, thing, or idea as something else. The statement: “It’s going to be clear skies from here on out!” implies both pleasant weather and a feeling that nothing bad will happen.

Carefully placed figurative language can deepen meaning, support theme, turn a concept upside down, or move your reader toward and “ah-ha!” moment.

In Summary

When writing or editing, select words with a full understanding of their denotations and connotations. Use sensory words to build an experiential reading experience and pay attention to the quality of each word.

Decide whether to use formal or informal words. Use general words when appropriate, and more specific words to sharpen an image. Abstract words can add a level of richness to your writing, and concrete words help the reader picture the image you are painting with your words.

When writing to create a picture, select your focus, control pacing through the static description and moving narrative, and explore using figurative language such as similes and metaphors.

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Photo of author Julie ValerieABOUT JULIE VALERIE

Julie Valerie is an author and co-founder of the 85K Writing Challenge.

Her short story “LLL” was featured in the anthology, A Kind of Mad Courage.

She is currently considering options for her debut novel and lives in Richmond, VA with her husband, four children, and two English Labradors (one chocolate, one yellow).


Website   |   Twitter   |   Facebook Author Page   |   Goodreads

Anthology: A king of mad courage. Short stories about mothers. Book coverABOUT THE SHORT STORY “LLL” BY JULIE VALERIE

Words of wisdom from the game of Scrabble unite a daughter with her ageing mother, a former Scrabble champion whose mental faculties are quickly fading.

“LLL” is featured in A Kind of Mad Courage: Short Stories About Mothers, (S)mothers & Others edited by Francine LaSala and Samantha Stroh Bailey.

All proceeds benefit Guthy-Jackson Charitable Foundation.

Read A Kind of Mad Courage – Amazon US

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Another awesome guest post which I hope you all enjoyed. Do make sure you check out Julie’s links to her other locations on the web.

As always I hope you enjoyed this post if so do please comment, like share… it’s all about spreading the love people. Supporting our fellow writers

Thanks to Julie for guest posting this week. My usual blog post will (most like) appear this Friday at the usual time of 18:30 BST (That’s British Standard Time for those who aren’t aware). 

Happy writing

Signature & logo of Ari Meghlen

12 thoughts on “Find that Perfect Word: Contemplating Word Choice by Julie Valerie

  1. This is just great! Till now I’ve been writing off things that just came to me, now after this I might well have to rethink. Thanks for the post 😄

  2. Julie, you put a lot of thought into this superb post. There is a lot to think about here and I can see where one could improve their writing by leaps and bounds by following your examples, Bookmarking this post.

    1. Michelle, that means so much to me – especially coming from you! 🙂 The article was a lot longer when I initially wrote it. Was really hard paring it all down. So very happy that you enjoyed it. Thank you for bookmarking it. That really makes my day!

  3. Pauline Wiles

    Oh my gosh, so much to think about here! I admit my heart sank a little: just when I thought I was nearing the end of “tinkering” with my 80k WIP, I see I still have massive scope to improve. Thanks, Julie!

  4. Pingback: Find that Perfect WordJulie Valerie

  5. Hi Ari,

    A very special thank you for hosting me on your magnificent website! 🙂 I’m so thrilled to be featured here and really enjoyed reading the articles written by the other guest posters. Thanks so very much. Cheers!


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