Wednesday, June 13, 2012

The Perfect Word

Probably one of the most overused phrases writers hear from their editors is "Show, don't tell." I've heard it a million times. I've said it a million times. Sometimes it just makes you want to throw something across the room.

I do this lesson with my students on choosing the best word in their writing in order to improve their understanding of that trite, overused phrase. It teaches them the difference between the denotation and the connotation of a word and the powerful effect one word can have on the tone of any communication.

For example, the words smell, odor, and aroma have the same basic denotation. They mean smell (as a noun). But if someone walks into the room and says, "What is that odor?" you know he or she probably walked into 8th period, because those students just came from P.E. It reeks; somebody open a window!

If someone walks into the room and says, "What is that aroma?" you know he or she is enjoying the fragrance (oooo! Another good connotation word!). Mmmmm! Did Mrs. Johnson bring in chocolate chip cookies again?

If someone walks into the room and says, "What is that smell?" well, the meaning can only be determined by assessing the body language and voice inflection, those pesky nonverbal cues that are so difficult to capture in writing. Why? Because he or she didn't choose the word that best captured the essence of the intended meaning.

As writers, it is important that we select the words we use for their connotation. They should offer the most complete picture of what we want the reader to sense.

This goes for verbs too. In fact, the use of strong verbs is one of the most important things for a writer to implement. Strong verbs create rich imagery. The man didn't just walk out the door... that captures nothing of his attitude, his physical or emotional state. SHOW how he did it. And there's no need to adverb that. Use a strong, visual verb.

The man stalked out the door.
The man sauntered out the door.
The man hobbled out the door.
The man swaggered out the door.
The man strolled out the door.
The man ambled out the door.
The man stormed out the door.
The man slipped out the door.

I could go on, but I think you get the picture. And that's really the point, isn't it?

You want your readers to "get the picture"? Show them. Don't tell.

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