Most of the questions I’m personally asked are about specific details regarding the editing process of a novel or story during or after the writing process.
Today, I will cover the word.
A single word can make or break a story. How? Well, let’s see….
What if you read the word lanky? What image comes to mind? What if you read the word thin or wiry? Do different images come to mind?
Let’s look at a single sentence now.
The lanky man walked down the street.
What do you see?
How about: The thin man walked down the street.
Or: The wiry man walked down the street.
Different imagery comes to mind, right?
Generally, my advice to writers of all levels of expertise is to just get the story down, get it all down, get it all out of your mind and onto paper, or a screen, or whatever. Once everything is done then it’s time to edit, and this is where it gets complicated.
Writing the story is the easy part. Writing is really just getting out the sequential account of events, which transpire, but editing is turning those sequential accounts into an enjoyable story for people, and I assure you, readers read differently than writers, and this is why editors are a great go between; they read as both writers and readers; they understand what a writer is trying to say, and they turn it into something that readers understand.
So, let’s take a quick look at those words again. Thin, lanky, and wiry can all mean something similar, but a lanky person isn’t generally thought of as strong or tough. A thin person is usually thought of as attractive; TV tells us we should be thin. Wiry tends to connote strength; a wiry person is thin and maybe lanky, but they’re usually also a tad muscular, or tough, or stringy, and so all in all, each of those words brings unto a reader a different image, a different meaning.
Now, let’s try something a bit different.
The lanky man shuffled down the street.
This is different from a lanky man walking. Shuffling connotes a different meaning even though walking and shuffling are synonyms. Suddenly, a reader is locked into a new image; a man is shuffling, why?
It’s a common mistake that writers make; they choose a synonym only because they used another word of similar meaning on too many previous occasions. They think that because someone else walked earlier, they must use a similar but different word on the next passage, but this can be a mistake as it will make the reader wonder why someone was shuffling when there seems to be no cause for shuffling, which means that everything before and everything after the shuffling must be tied together, which is why it’s important to make these changes during the editing process and not the writing process; the author can then have a better idea of the imagery they’ve already introduced.
So, let’s take a look at a more complicated situation.
It was a hot day, and John decided to stay inside until it subsided. From his living room, he caught sight of a lanky man walking down the street. Whoever the person was, John didn’t recognize him.
Nothing wrong with the above paragraph; it provides the reader everything they need to know; it’s hot, which is why John is indoors, and that’s why he saw someone, who is lanky.
Now, a writer must consider many things; what happened before? What happens next? Why is any of this important? Is this a novel? Is this a short story? What is the genre?
Now, you’re asking, “What does this have to do with changing a single word, and how does it make or break a story?”
Well, buckle up.
If the preceding paragraph has already tackled the weather, John’s setting, or the man then it’s important to avoid being redundant, and changing a single word can have that effect.
If the following paragraph follows up on the man rather than John, the setting, or the weather then it becomes important to choose the right words in order to lead into the next idea, and again, a single word can make all the difference.
If this is a novel then a reader will want to know as much as possible about anything germane to the story, but if this is a short story then there are probably a great many things, which require no explanation. In other words, if this is a novel, the writer should probably focus on creating a more complex paragraph, but this also depends on the scene; will it be an action scene, or is it a form a foreshadowing, or this just a framing device to set up another chain of events?
What genre is this? Is this horror? Is this a fantasy? Is it scifi?
Let’s play with the paragraph.
It was a blistering day….
By changing hot to blistering, the reader has a different notion of how hot it is, but that word is also different from hot in another way; we can no longer continue the sentence as it was originally provided.
It doesn’t make sense to say: It was a blistering day, and John decided to stay inside until it subsided.
Until what subsided? The day? No, the heat, which we knew as readers when we read the original paragraph, so by changing a single word, if we don’t change another word later in the same sentence, we break the story.
We have to write instead: It was a blistering day, and John decided to stay inside until the heat subsided.
This first sentence has now taken on a whole new life. Yes, we still know that John is inside because it was hot, but now we know how hot; we’ve all experienced summer days so hot, we had to stay inside until the heat subsided. Changing a single word, which forced us to change another, has now made this sentence far more relatable and meaningful.
Now, let’s play around some more. What if this is a horror short story about zombies?
It was a hot day, and John decided to stay inside until it subsided. From his living room, he caught sight of a lanky zombie walking down the street. Whoever the person was, John didn’t recognize him.
Obviously, I changed man to zombie, but that’s not important because everything else is exactly the same, however, since the reader will know it’s a horror short about zombies, they expect to read a horror about zombies, so let’s change a word.
From his living room, he caught sight of an emaciated zombie walking down the street.
Whoa, emaciated is way better than lanky. Now, you say, “Lanky and emaciated don’t mean the same thing; they aren’t synonyms.”
You’re right, sort of; emaciated is a synonym for thin or skinny, which are synonyms for lanky, but since this is a horror, it’s important to use a more terrifying word that elicits a fearful image, and lanky doesn’t scare anyone, but is emaciated the right word?
How about: From his living room, he caught sight of a cadaverous zombie walking down the street.
Now, we’re on to something; cadaverous makes us think of something already dead, but doesn’t cadaverous zombie sound redundant? We know it’s dead, kind of, I mean, it’s a zombie….
Here, we have another case of a single word breaking the story, whereas emaciated made the story better, but it doesn’t end there.
If a writer really wants to tune up that sentence, they might try: From his living room, he caught sight of a cadaverous creature shuffling down the street.
Yes, a total of three words have been changed, but it’s a chained effect caused by changing that one word, lanky, and following it up to make a sentence more palatable for an audience, and more appropriate for the genre in question. It cannot be denied that the later sentence is far and away more horrifying than the previous one.
If all this sounds complicated, it is; editing is no picnic, and a competent editor has to do a lot of work to make a story worth reading, and it’s also why editors aren’t hired until after a story is completely written; we can’t edit without knowing what happened before, during, and after a set of events, and neither can the author choose the correct words, neither can the audience understand the writer’s meaning, but taking some time to understand the art of writing rather than just jotting down a sequential account of events will really help to make a story a far better read to the audience.