Words: the tools of a writer

Writers need words to make a sentence and then a paragraph and a page. Ask any writer what they do as part of a final polish when their manuscript is finished. Most will say, check for weak words. That might mean awkward phrasing or passive voice or oft-repeated favorites. 

Readers like to call out the ‘dollar word when the nickel will do’ – and they are right. Most of the time. However, I’ll argue that stretching vocabulary, looking for nuance, and an ease on the ear is as important. The reader may not specifically notice a nice, diverse vocabulary (maybe they shouldn’t notice it), but they will notice repetition. Who wants to hear every good looking woman described as pretty or every car described as fast. We’d never meet the kitten-like coquettish vixen or the highway eating muscle car. 

The ease of good writing, the kind that paints a picture without anyone noticing, was brought home to me a few months ago when I was on stage with a slew of other writers and we were asked about our ‘go-to words.’ The silence on stage was worthy of a 1940’s melodrama, the moment when you know the bad guy is approaching the unsuspecting family’s home. The pause before the Knock, Knock that announces doom.

Go-to words? The question had to be repeated since we clearly didn’t hear, or we would have replied, right?

I’d never considered writing from this perspective. I understand that genres have formulas, actually almost every book has the thread of a formula, the hero’s journey or love lost and found. You don’t need to write or read a genre to find patterns. But go-to words? Well, I never (as my grandmother might have said). 

Part of me wonders what would happen if it were that easy. Need excitement, use “excitement.” Need to set the scene of romance, use the following phrase….. Actually, this starts to sound like a job for pre-programmed computers. Hit the big button and spit out a story, and not just any story, but the best story (after all, aren’t computer’s super brains?). 

Not surprisingly, this is underway. 

If you have time, I suggest reading an article in the New YorkerCan a Machine Learn to Write for the New Yorker

Perhaps there is hope for writer’s yet.


  1. Interesting! I love learning new words when I’m reading, and we wouldn’t be doing our readers a service if we dumb down our language. A recent study revealed that our common vocabulary is shrinking significantly. That’s too bad. But purposely using a long, obscure word to “impress” readers when a short, plain word would do just as well drives me nuts.

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