Sunday, February 2, 2014

Painting by Word

Mark Twain famously said “The difference between the right word and the almost right word is the difference between lightning and a lightning bug.” Every writer should take this quote to heart—writing is not just about using words, it’s about choosing the right words to illustrate our stories.
Take this example:
“The leaves on the tree were green.” It’s a nice declarative sentence. A description that’s grammatically correct. It’s also vague.
“The leaves on the maple were green.”  This gives the reader a better description and a clearer picture.
Mr. Twain gave good advice.
Portrait courtesy of Wikimedia 
We can take it another step forward by completing the illustration—“The leaves of the maple cast hand sized shadows on the roof of the house.” You can see this clearly, can’t you? You get a sense of dark and light. Maybe you gather a sense of something ominous lurking between the lines. 
Here’s another example:
“He pulled up his suspenders.” Not bad. It does the job. We can do better, though—
“He pulled his suspenders up over his shoulders.”  This completes the action, with a bit more illustration.
In a historical I read recently, the writer went one step further. The book was set in the 1920’s and the writer wrote “He pulled his braces up over his shoulders.” The substitution of ‘braces’ an old-school word the character would have used for ‘suspenders’ adds a layer. With that single brush-stroke, the writer invokes a whole era.
 Listen to Mark Twain. Use the right words to paint your scenes. Your scenes will come to life and your readers will be grateful.

'Til next time


Julie Eberhart Painter said...

We knew that green tree was a summer tree, which tells us more.

The older word for items, such as braces in period pieces help set a sense of place and time.


Jude Johnson said...

I love Mr. Twain. Indeed, descriptions can be rich without being wordy, which is the FUN challenge facing us all.

Big Mike said...

Hate moving. Next time is my last. Ref getting rid of books, my wife has 6341 cookbooks and will take them with her to the grave.

Michael Davis (
Author of the Year (2008 and 2009)
Award of Excellence (2012)