In a 1895 essay called “Fenimore Cooper’s Literary Offenses,” Mark Twain listed as one of his rules that writers “use the right word, not its second cousin.”
More than 120 years later and “Use the right word, not its second cousin” is still excellent advice. (There’s a whole book of essays on writing by Mark Twain, by the way.)
We can so easily get caught up in choosing perfect words that we stop forward motion on our stories. I’m just going to come right out and say that if you have to pull out a thesaurus to find the word, you’re probably courting a second cousin.
And you don’t want to do that. I have a feeling it’s frowned upon even more now than it was at the end of the nineteenth century. In every possible interpretation.
Choosing the right word is also key in the showing vs. telling battle.
In the same essay, Twain writes, “When a person has a poor ear for music he will flat and sharp right along without knowing it. He keeps near the tune, but it is not the tune. When a person has a poor ear for words, the result is a literary flatting and sharping; you perceive what he is intending to say, but you also perceive that he doesn’t say it.”
Let’s work on tuning our ear for words today.
Write a scene where your protagonist is frustrated. Use your word choice to show the frustration without coming out and telling the reader how the main character is feeling.
Here’s an example from my work-in-progress, a middle grade story called Wonder Roo.
Sometime during our endless drive through the state of Tennessee, I decided that I would never, not ever, forgive my parents for dragging me to live in some dirt town in rural Nevada.
Not Nev-ah-da. Nev-a-da. (A-like-in-apple right in the middle.) Better learn to say it like a native, Dad said, or they’ll make you move to California.
Whatever. I didn’t want to be a native of Nev-a-da or Nev-ah-da or anywhere but Wildwood, New-Jer-sey.
“You’re pouting so hard, Josiah, I can hear it.” Dad tilted the rear view mirror so he saw me through it. I barely suppressed the urge to stick out my tongue.
“Will we be in Tennessee forever or what?” I asked.
He flicked on the blinker and slowed, swerving toward the shoulder. “Would you like to be?”
I scrunched in my seat, arms crossed over my chest. “No.”
“You’re sure? I bet we could find a circus around here somewhere who’d buy you cheap.”
“So,” he lifted one shoulder like it didn’t matter to him one way or the other, “you want to keep going?”
“Right-o, Boss.” He shot me a little salute and somehow turned things around so that continuing this long, long drive west in a SUV pulling a trailer full of our stuff was my idea.
My sister Harper leaned forward in her booster seat and said, “Hey, Josiah’s not the boss. I’m the boss!”
Mom made a little sound suspiciously like a laugh and I turned my scowl out the window and waited to get to Arkansas.
Your turn, Ninja! Write your scene and come share it on Facebook if you want some feedback.