If you love a word, set it free

We’re writers and readers so of course we love words. Maybe too much sometimes? I remember a New Yorker cartoon with a couple dining at a very nice restaurant.

After the waiter walks away the man says, “I really wanted chardonnay, but I like saying pinot grigio.”

Let’s face it, there are some words we like more than others. I’m the state president of a large volunteer organization. This week I was talking to another volunteer about what might have become a thorny issue. I’ll admit that when I realized I might be able to use the words carte blanche, I was euphoric.I remember telling someone once that I only wanted to get old enough to say words like extraordinary, without soundling like a smart**s. Some words are just more fun to say, right?

When should you let a word in your manuscript go?

  1. When it’s a 50 cent word, and a shorter, simpler one will do. On January 3, Connie Berry’s post was on punctuation. Kurt Vonnegut went further: “Here is a lesson in creative writing. First rule: Do not use semicolons. [Offensive remark expunged]. All they do is show you’ve been to college.” That’s how I feel about books that have readers Googling every other sentence.
  2. When your character just wouldn’t say that. And hasn’t spoken like that so far in the book. Whether your protagonist is staid or humorous, brilliant or dull, talkative or shy, you’ve staked out that ground. Unless there’s some reason for her to change how she communicates, keep her word choices consistent.
  3. Not to be all, build your wordpower-ish, but do be on the lookout for new words and phrases. The definition for some will be obvious. “That town is very boaty.” Others, you might have to support. For example, “corporate accent.” That’s the way many executives speak when they lay on the bad news euphemisms and it’s usually deeper, monotone, throaty.

I believe that someday, somewhere, I will give myself carte blanche to say carte blanche, and that will be extraordinary. Please comment below with some of your favorite words.

Stay in touch,




    1. Josh,
      I’ve never seen this video but from the comments it looks like a classic. This makes the point better than I ever could — with my foibles.
      This morning on NPR they interveiwed people who attended the public hearing on the proposed new stadium here in Alexandria. One person said the speakers assuaged her concerns, somewhat. She used the word correctly but you could tell she felt uncertain.
      Some words are just special,

  1. Such great advice, Lane! Problem is I love words as well. Too much. I especially love the sound of old words nobody ever uses anymore. Like “snowbroth” (freshly melted snow) and “gorgonize” (to have a mesmerizing effect). To date I’ve never encountered an actual chance to speak them, so I keep them to myself–like china that is beautiful but too fragile to use.

  2. I am brimful of words I either never get a chance to use or can’t pronounce, so I try, slyly, to get my characters to say them. But even they will balk at some of them. It’s all about making sure you’re in your character’s head enough to keep yourself from peeping through.

  3. Lane, good thoughts and I’m giving you carte blanche to use it!
    I’m fond of older words, like Connie—maybe our Anglophile leanings are showing—far too many episodes of Midsomer Murders under my belt. I’ve had to carve out “whilst” in my Nora Tierneys often…

  4. Lane, I agree, using words appropriate for your character is critical for dialogue to be authentic and interesting.

    Another aspect of words, that I learned my freshman year in college, is to be sure they are valid for the culture and time period of the story.

  5. I once told a friend that I dreamed of owning a Miata and she said, you’re just saying that because you like the word. Sad but true. Or not sad. 🙂 I also love the word penultimate.

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