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:
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:
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.
**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.