Wednesday, January 9, 2013

Vague Words and How to Eschew Them

Today I'd like to talk about word choice in creative writing.  Specifically, about how to find the right word--or at least, how to avoid using the wrong one.  So, here's the first in a one-part series, Ask Dr. Chris! Today's question is: "How do I find the right word--or at least, avoid using the wrong one--in my creative writing?"  Excellent question, me!  Click down below the break to read my answer.

I'd like to suggest that when choosing the words with which one tells one's story, one should be as exact as possible with one's vocabulary, without sacrificing accuracy of meaning.

That's not exactly earth-shattering advice, is it?  No, the tricky part isn't knowing that precise language is a good thing; it's knowing how to tell if one's language is precise, and if it's utilized correctly.  So how does one tell?  I'd like to share a lesson that I've used with beginning English students in the past, designed to explain the differences between similar words, adapted somewhat for this different audience and purpose.

Let's start with a 0-100 scale:

This gets more interesting, I promise.

Let's say this scale represents happiness (as opposed to angriness, not depression).  50 is our midpoint, neither happy nor unhappy; above that is progressively more happy, below that is progressively more unhappy, out to our absolute values of 0 and 100.  Let's focus on the unhappy side.

Suppose I wrote the sentence "She was unhappy."  Without any additional context*, what does that tell us?  Well, not much.  Using our scale as a measure, we can only say that she's somewhere on the left side of fifty; she could be merely annoyed, or she could be positively apoplectic.  Why?  Because "unhappy" is a vague word, and can cover a lot of territory.  Look:

"Unhappy" spans nearly half the spectrum; it could mean anything between irked and distraught.

Luckily, the English language has lots of semi-redundant words, and I've used several of them in the last few sentences.  "Annoyed," "apoplectic," irked," and "distraught" can all go on the scale too:

Whether we agree on the precise numbers those lines match up to doesn't really matter, as long as we all agree that they're in the right general location (we do, right?).  And we can add plenty more, on top of those!

Okay, that's probably enough; more, and I'm going to run out of colors that are both easy to differentiate and easy to read.  But that definitely gave us some much better options for our sentence!  Now we can change it from "She was unhappy" to "She was distraught," right?

Well, not necessarily.  We've found a suitably precise word for our meaning, but that doesn't mean it's the right word.  A look at our chart shows that apoplectic and distraught occupy similar spaces, yet their meanings are vastly different.  The former implies violent rage; the latter suggests despair.  Using the wrong one is going to create a very discordant sentence.

To give another example: suppose you were writing a war story, and wanted to show a general reacting to reading a casualty list.  Being the sort of fellow who cares deeply for his soldiers, he's upset by the loss of life, but at the same time is relived to see that the list is shorter than he dared hope.  If you were picking a word by intensity, you'd probably opt for something near the middle of our scale, then.

Well, "annoyed" fits the bill, but it would be a terrible word under the circumstances.  The problem here isn't intensity; it's secondary implications.  "Annoyed" implies that the source of annoyance is a trivial matter, or that the concern is petty**, which is obviously not what we're trying to communicate.  The word suggests that our general is cold and unfeeling, caring little for his troops, and that's the opposite of what we're trying to say.  Although "upset" is far less precise, it's probably our best word in this case: it doesn't carry any of the unwanted implications which "annoy" does.

But with that said, let's go back to our sentence.  Assuming that it fits in terms of intensity and implication(s), "She was distraught" is unquestionably a better sentence than "She was unhappy."  It immediately conveys far more about our subject's precise mood, which in turn allows readers to better visualize the scene we're writing.  "She was distraught" creates a much stronger, more specific impression than "she was unhappy," which is precisely what an author should try to do at every turn.

Now then, all that's left to talk about are exceptions.  After all, it can't always be wrong to say "unhappy," or else no-one would ever use it.  There are three main reasons to avoid using the most precise word possible:

1)  You're writing dialogue, and the more precise word doesn't match the character's vocabulary or speaking style.  When young children in your story start saying they're "distraught," you have a problem.

2)  You are, for whatever reason, trying to keep something vague.  Maybe you're writing from a limited perspective, and it isn't obvious to your viewpoint character exactly how unhappy someone is.  Maybe you want to leave a particular event or reaction (somewhat) open to interpretation.  Whatever the case, sometimes you'll want to be vague.***

3)  As discussed above, sometimes there aren't any terribly specific words which both convey the intensity and carry the implications, if any, which your story requires.  In those cases, it's always better to take a vague word than a word which doesn't fit.  Implicit in the "be as exact as possible" rule is the caveat that one shouldn't try to be more exact than possible.

So... that's it!  Congratulations, by reading this blog post, you are now certified to write stories filled with precise, evocative vocabulary.  From now on, instead of writing "the hall was full of art," you can say "the hall was bedecked with portraits!"  Instead of "she ran past the old woman," you can say "she hurried past the wizened crone!"  Whatever you write though, write what you mean.

*A note on context: some authors will argue, in cases like this, that the meaning of "unhappy" in their narration is obvious from context: her sister just died, isn't that enough of a hint?  My answer to this is that, if it's obvious from the situation what a character is feeling (or thinking, or doing...) to the point where the sentence is superfluous, then it probably doesn't need to be written at all.

**It also implies a repetitious source, which might or might not fit one's meaning under the circumstances.  When in doubt, check the dictionary (or the electronic equivalent); it's always worth ensuring that one's meaning and one's vocabulary match up.

***Make sure, however, that there is a reason for your vagueness; "because I don't feel like changing it" doesn't cut it.  Rule 0 of music writing is "you are allowed to break all the other rules, but only if you can explain why doing so will make the song better," and if it isn't also Rule 0 for creative writing, it should be.


  1. I'm pretty sure it's the golden rule for just about everything creative.

    1. My first thought at the mention of Rule 0 was D&D. One of the reasons I hate 3.5 so much was they removed Rule 0. There's a bunch of other reasons, too. I have a 100+ page list ^_^

      I've never heard that rule applied to music before. Interesting. Not sure I completely agree with the letter of the rule, even if I do with the spirit

    2. Yeah, I'm not too sure I agree either.

      I've seen pages and pages of people trying to explain away their reasons for using redundant word choice, or having plotholes, or capitalizing words wrong, or having terrible pacing, or having misogynistic undertones, or deciding not to use the correct punctuation. The vast majority of the time it seems like the people who try to explain away their mistakes were unaware of these problems and, on the spot, thought up an excuse for why the problems existed in the first place. The real reason probably breaks down to "I dislike being told I have done things wrong, I feel the need to justify myself and revising my story is too much work".

      With enough effort a person can think of a plausible reason for anything, and storytelling, being a subjective—and very personal—medium and all, is prone to this.

    3. From what I've seen, successful works that supposedly break the rules don't actually do so. Rather, they don't conform to an oversimplified understanding of that medium's ruleset. This is especially the case in music, as so many are quick to criticize tonal theory without understanding just how subtle and flexible it is. I could be wrong, but I'd be willing to bet that anything that works does obey the rules, you just might not know all of 'em ;)

    4. Rules exist because they work. There are some good works that break the rules, but that only tends to works if the author knows why the rules are there, and also how they work.

      Ironically, if a certain rule-breaking proves itself effective, it will probably grow into a rule eventually.

  2. Aw, only one part? This could've made for a great filler series

    I have a feeling something prompted this post. Is Daring Do rife with poor word choices?

    1. You'll find out...

      Seriously though, it wasn't one story in particular. I just am endlessly annoyed by some of the really wishy-washy words and phrases people employ when telling stories. And they do it all the time.

  3. Rule 0; I'll have to remember that. I mean, I know the rule, I've just never heard it given a name before.

    That bit about using the dictionary is good advice, too, even for people who've been writing and using words for a long time. I just recently found out that I've been using a word incorrectly for who knows how long. (I forget what it was; it was not 'inconceivable'.) It completely changed the meaning of the sentence I was using it in!

  4. Definitely agree on the dictionary point. I wouldn't mind writing very purple prose, but it makes your work more inaccessible. It's fine to pick a vocabulary term if it's the one word that most perfectly fits the situation. So, I'm constantly checking the dictionary to make sure words carry the fine shades of meaning I think they do, and the pronunciation guides can also help with a sentence's rhythm, particularly if you're used to a rarer regional pronunciation and didn't know it. One thing many writers also overlook with verbs is whether they cannot, can, or must take objects. The dictionary will clear that up with a glance. Unfortunately, what the dictionary lacks is what form those objects must take. That can be somewhat evident from the verb's definition, but it's not always clear. A common one that people get wrong is the difference between affect and effect. "Affect" takes as its direct object the person or thing that experiences a change. "Effect" takes the change itself. So, the bad economy affects my budget, and it effects some belt-tightening. Similarly, you see arguments from time to time over what constitutes a "proper speaking verb." Common usage has glossed over this issue to the point where it's largely ignored now, but strictly speaking, a proper speaking verb needs to be able to take the speech as a direct object (or, some would say, an indirect object). Here's an example:
    "Hey!" she interrupted.
    "Interrupt can take a direct object. But a direct object is supposed to receive the action, not perform it. Here, the words aren't being interrupted; they're doing the interrupting. A direct object should be the unnamed person to whom she's speaking. But if we add an object, then there's no longer a place syntactically for the speech to function as a noun in the sentence. Since it performs the interruption, it could be the subject:
    "Hey!" interrupted him.
    But that just sounds weird. People don't talk like that, it strangely personifies the speech, and it ignores the function of the speaker (which can work, if "he" has not noticed her yet). So what if we rearrange things a bit?
    Her shout of "Hey!" interrupted him.
    That works, as the speaker is now part of the sentence, and the speech serves as the object of a preposition. I think it's more elegant. And yet you commonly see the original sentence's structure used. Few reviewers will complain about it. In fact, you can see the same thing given as an example sentence in a dictionary. Why? Partly because someone compiling examples for a dictionary isn't necessarily a strict grammarian. But mostly because it's so prevalent in common usage that it's become acceptable. I have to admit that the original is rather succinct, and it's still clear what it means.

    Bottom line: what Chris said. So you read my rant for nothing. Writers, take the time to examine exactly what it is you're saying and how you're saying it. Carefully consider what that word, phrase, or sentence conveys, and make sure it's precisely what you intended.

    1. For most of my life:

      I've been looking for a way to tell the difference between "effect" and "affect." I usually rewrite sentences just to avoid using either word, in fact. So thank you, sir or madame, for giving me something to work with here!


    2. Looking it up in the OED ( if you have access), intransitive/absolute use of 'interrupt' dates back to at least 1420, and there is an example of the structure you describe from 1828:
      1828 Scott Fair Maid of Perth ii, in Chron. Canongate 2nd Ser. III. 33 ‘Ay, truly,’ interrupted the Glover; ‘and I so counselled and commanded thee.’

      What is your basis for declaring that speech must be referred to with a verb that can take the words as a direct object? That is, why do you declare '"Hey!" she interrupted." to be incorrect rather than recognising an exception (in observed English usage) to your claim about verbs describing speech?

      I find 'Her shout of "Hey!" interrupted him.' to be less elegant than '"Hey!" she interrupted.' I feel that the latter better captures the sense of a sudden interruption. I guess you could write '"Hey!" The shout interrupted him.' if you really wanted to be clear who is being interrupted, but that should be clear from the context.

      Finally, Wiktionary ( ) has a paragraph in both entries distinguishing 'affect' and 'effect', and the OED and give clear and distinct definitions which imply the form the object should take. I think dictionaries might be more helpful than you suggest ;)

    3. The way I keep the 'ffects in line is by the simple explanation I was once told:

      "Affect" is a verb.
      "Effect" is a noun.

  5. Ah, this is a great explanation. If I ever come across someone having trouble with word choice, I'll know where to direct them.

    I admit, I often run to the dictionary or an online synonym generator while I'm writing. Every now and then there will be that certain word that I think would fit perfectly, if only I could remember it. Or, that word that sounds close but I'm unsure of it just enough that I feel the need to check its exact meaning. Slows down the writing process a bit, but you catch so many errors when you do it.

  6. Okay, so let me see if I'm doing this right.

    "With trembling hand, the general accepted the list of casualties. He was in the 13-14 area, round about."

    1. 'round*

      I think you could use an em dash or something to make that one sentence, but otherwise you're golden

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    1. What a pleasant young fellow! If only every spambot was this polite... Sadly, these young city mobster spammers know no respect-- Wait, what? Internet Explorer?! To the flames of damnation with this one, I say!

    2. Don't listen to Anonymous, Anonymous. I understand what it's like growing up as a spambot in a broken home. A home where the only way to win the love of those around you is by tricking them into clicking on the links you made against their will. It's all you've ever known, and as such, have no other way with which to interact with the outside world. You mean well. I know you mean well. I can see it in your silhouette, and it drives me to the depths of 27 to know that this basic programming which you were born with will remain as a burden to you throughout the rest of your life.

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    3. You guys...

      I was gonna delete that, but now I'd feel bad about orphaning your replies. I guess I should just be grateful that adblock catches most of the gunk.

    4. Now all we need is a Spambot in Equestria fic.

    5. I'm subscribed to comments on this blog via RSS, which means I get to see every one, deleted or not.

      Man, you need a captcha or something, Chris. c.c

  10. Holy shit. Someone else associates numbers with words when choosing the proper one to use? Damn, I thought I was just weird.

    Although, I use a -5 to +5 scale and associate them with emotion (negativity and positivity), where 0 is neutral and can be interpreted either way.