Essential writing skills: finding that ‘Goldilocks’ word

One of the hardest things for writers – and especially if you’re under pressure to produce and hit a word-target – is finding the right words. Having, in short, a wide enough vocabulary to express yourself with interest and variation. It’s harder than it seems. Even experienced authors usually rely on a relative handful of words – certainly in first drafts. It’s the struggle to find good variations, I think, that slows authors down the most.

Yes, this IS my typewriter. What's it doing on the Wellington Writers Walk? Er - introductions...
Yes, this IS my typewriter. What’s it doing on the Wellington Writers Walk? Er – introductions…

The problem’s ironic in many ways. It’s a while now since English became the richest language in the world – word-wise, certainly. The current vocabulary runs to something over a million. But most people don’t actually use that many – a 1991 paper suggested the average college student has a vocabulary of under 17,000 words. This is about the same as Shakespeare.

What it means is that for every word you have in the vocabulary of your writing, there are probably several alternatives. And maybe it’s good to use some of them. But this doesn’t mean jamming as many different words as possible into your material. Good styling isn’t about sitting down with a Thesaurus and finding synonyms for your favourite adjective. Callipygian, for example. Authors who succumb usually end up with fifty shades of stylistic mauve. I hesitate to use the word ‘purple’; it’s too intense a colour for this sort of mud.

As with all things there is a balance. Word selection guides tone. It guides the reading age. It guides that indefineable ‘feel’ of the work. I’ll post in more detail later on those points. Within those parameters writers have to find a vocabulary ‘Goldilocks zone’ where there is enough variation in the word selection to be interesting – but not so much as to make the work over-written or pretentious.

My advice:

  1. Get that first draft out even if you use a lot of ‘samey’ words – a bad first draft is better than no first draft, and stopping to find elusive words breaks trains of thought. Sure, you’ll have a fairly bland vocab. But you can then go through and fix the word selection on the editing which is, as we know, really an integral part of the writing.
  2. Be careful with adjectives.  Writing, in general, has been stripping itself of these ever since Hemingway decided to introduce a more journalistic tone to literature a century ago.
  3. It’s handy to have three or four variations for your commonest words (in novels, it’s usually ‘said’) – but no more.
  4. When finding synonyms for ‘said’, be judicious. It’s tempting to use an adverb – but don’t. Why? “‘I say! That’s a bit off, old chap,’ expostulated Algy.” See what I mean?
  5. ‘Groak’ means ‘to stare silently at someone while they are eating’. Just saying.

Do you have a favourite word that keeps popping up, usually unannounced, in your writing?

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2014

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13 thoughts on “Essential writing skills: finding that ‘Goldilocks’ word

  1. The words ‘countered’ and ‘argued’ usually pop up in my writing as alternatives to ‘said.’ I often worry if I’m overusing alternatives while writing but as you say, that’s fixed in the editing process.


    1. It certainly is – and editing is such an important part of the whole thing that, really, I figure we need to think of it as integral to the writing process. It’s more than just ‘tidying up’ or ‘checking’ the book (though that’s also part of the editing, later).

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  2. I dont know how anyone can write under pressure and to meet a deadline. My hat goes off to you all. I am a writer but only when I feel inspired. Maybe that is why I am not an author.

    I found your tips very helpful matthew


  3. Again, just a fine, fine post, Matthew. I have come to rely on certain phrases for first drafts. They capture where I want to go with a concept or imply a direction. As you say, that way I am not losing an initial thought but saving it so it can become its own variation. BTW, I think I became comfortable with this when I was using voice recognition software. “Talking” an initial draft may allow that. Thanks, Matthew!


    1. I’m intrigued by your approach here, because it’s pretty much also what I do; words are an imperfect vehicle for concept, and the essence of writing is find ways of expressing those concepts. I actually view words as disposable; I sometimes have to create a ‘placeholder’ paragraph with the ideas in their most imperfect form, in order to work out the best way of actually expressing the concept. Sometimes I’ll deliberately switch tools – certainly during the planning stages (making notes in pen and ink, for instance) to force a shift of ‘mental paradigm’ relative to the tool set. I haven’t used voice recognition software but it seems to me it would be an excellent tool for the task because we form words to speak in such a different way from words to write.

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  4. It might be the day of the week, the weather, or anything else causing it, but I seem to favor “just” and “finally” most often. When I go back and edit, those two words have found their way into every page at least once.


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