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Plain Doesn’t Mean Boring

August 11, 2017 by Fiction Editor Beth Hill
last modified August 11, 2017

Writers and editors spend a lot of time choosing words that best fit character, genre, emotion, a particular situation, and tone or mood. We’ve addressed word issues in many articles at The Editor’s Blog, but today I want to focus on word choice at a basic level.

Fairly frequently I read a section in a manuscript that comes across as too fancy, as if the writer is trying too hard to make the text sound literary or highbrow. Now, if literary or highbrow is needed, use words that match that condition. But just as purple prose can be a problem, distracting readers or pulling them out of the fiction and into an awareness of the story’s foundations, so can fancy words be a distraction.

Or maybe they’re not a distraction. Maybe they’re an irritant, an annoying itch that asserts itself every so often.

While there are always exceptions, plain is often more fitting than fancy would be.

A few examples:

Do your characters go to the store to purchase milk or to buy milk?

Do characters walk around the block or perambulate around it?

Is a classroom unoccupied or is it empty?

Do characters apprise one another of events or do they tell what has happened?

You may need to use all of these words at some point, but if you’re searching for a fancy word when a plain one would fit all the conditions of your story, consider going with the plain word.

I’m not talking about using boring words; plain doesn’t have to mean bland. I’m suggesting using words that readers can easily understand and follow. I’m talking about solid words with meat to them, but not meaty words that are drowning in gravy.

So rather than say

she put her hand on his shoulder

you might try

she stroked his shoulder

she tapped [or rubbed or patted or caressed] his shoulder

However, you might not want to say

she palpated his shoulder

Now, if palpate is the best word for the scene’s needs, use it. If the character is a doctor checking out an injury, palpating the shoulder could be exactly what she’s doing. But if using palpate is a stretch for the action and mood of the scene, a stretch for the viewpoint character, go for something more common. Plain words can be as potent as fancy words. Plain words can be powerful and direct. Plain words can be specific.

When I suggest a plain word, that doesn’t mean I’m suggesting that you use something such as the nonspecific put. That’s a nothing word in the context of our sentence. Many other verbs would work and at the same time convey a particular motion, maybe even create a particular emotion.

We’re not looking for bland substitutes; we’re contrasting plain with unnecessarily fancy. I’m definitely not suggesting substituting the general for the specific. Plain might mean simple in terms of reader comprehension, but plain and simple don’t mean indirect or wimpy.

We still want a specific word, a word that narrows in on the particular. But being specific doesn’t have to make a character sound out of character. Specific doesn’t mean that a character must be a walking thesaurus.

If you find yourself struggling for a unique word, consider that you might be overreaching. See if a simpler word might not be the perfect fit. Think simple, strong, and specific rather than fancy or exceptionally literary. Think precise. Think in terms of words that clearly declare their meanings.

Rather than remind readers that they’re reading a work of fiction by using words that are typically only used in works of fiction and not by real humans, usher them into your fictional world by using words common to that world. Rather than use words that cry out these are words on a page, choose words that reinforce the story world and the reality of your characters.

Use strong words that create and enhance people, places, events, and atmosphere. Use your word choices to draw attention to events and characters rather than to the words themselves.

Fiction is all about the reality of the characters and their problems, and word choices should reflect your characters and their world, not your personality.

Your fiction reflects your skills and interests, of course. But since you’re not the star of your stories, readers should see and experience a fictional world and the characters that people that world, not you. Your reality shouldn’t intrude into the fiction. Word choice helps keep the real and the fictional separate.

Yes, there are exceptions for metafiction and other writing styles. But if you want readers getting lost in your stories, help them out by making yourself invisible and by crafting a story that fits together at every level. Use your word choices to glue the story parts together.

Don’t be afraid to use plain words, the everyday words of your extraordinary world.

edit well #2 83797AA0F48D684CBAC54FBF163B9699


Tags:     Posted in: Beyond the Basics, Craft & Style

13 Responses to “Plain Doesn’t Mean Boring”

  1. Right on, Beth … I’m in the middle of a rewrite, so this is perfect timing. I struggle with this all the time! Because I love words, and, to me, learning new ones is fun, I often need to go back and make changes, choosing words that are more appropriate for the character or situation. This is really important for both the narration and the dialogue … after all, none of my characters has ever been an English or linguistics major, and neither am I!

  2. Mark Schultz says:

    Nice post, Beth. Frequently it’s obvious when a writer is trying to show off big or ornate words. As you so aptly pointed out, the context is damaged, the character is speaking out of character. This hurts a story quite a bit. Thanks for shining some necessary illumination on this neglected area of writing.

  3. Choosing the correct word for both character and situation is vital in writing. I struggle with this constantly. I think I need to sound intelligent when writing.

    This post is great concrete advice, Beth. Thanks for sharing it with your followers. I’ve shared it generously online.

    • Phil H says:

      Five dollar words are the bain of readers. While some might move freely between Umberto Eco and Elmore Leonard and Barbara Park and the endless abyss of dystopian techno babble, it is is much more difficult to simply tell a story, simply. Something that reads like glass, keeps the reader entertained and never sends them to the dictionary be it mainstream or urban or slang. Steinbeck called it “hooptedoodle.” And as writers we write that stuff, often when we shouldn’t. We aren’t writing for ourselves, or whoever we consider our intellectual “peers” (Academic writing aside). We are story tellers first, show-offs second. Would we like to describe the texture of tree bark at length? Possibly. Should we? Doubtful. Should we convert the minutia of weapons and furniture and clothing to words? She was beautiful. Elegant. Her gown probably cost more than Rhode Island’s annual budget, and it was slit to heaven. She belongs to the reader at that point, not the writer. Invite them in, don’t run them off with the most obscure word you can find for fashion and exotic designer’s names. Simple is harder than it looks. I have that posted on my monitor during editing. Keeps me honest.

    • Victoria Marie, I think you’ve hit on something important. We do want to sound intelligent, but not all our characters should. So as soon as we truly get that, at least some of the options for word choices become much easier. We still have to choose the right word, but some choices will be out of bounds for some characters and situations.

      Great insight.

  4. Kiki says:

    How would you spell the sound nah nah? – for example, let’s say that a conceited someone did not succeed at something and you want to say ha ha but with a more negative, sarcastic tone.

    • Phil Huston says:

      I can’t resist.

      Everyone in the room heard the shhhp of Bobby’s middle when it flicked open…

      Nah nah is nah nah. Nonny nonny boo boo works. I use “Nuh-uh” a lot.

    • Kiki, I’ve got an article on spelling interjections, but that one’s not there.

      Phil’s nana-nana boo-boo (or nanny-nanny boo-boo) is pretty close to the sentiment, but maybe not used by adults. Nah nah might be the closest, but I’d probably add an explanation. You may want to make it into two sentences. Nah. nah. Still, it’s likely that no matter how you spell it, some readers will mispronounce it or get caught up in trying to figure out how to say it.

      An example:

      I couldn’t help saying nah nah like a schoolkid, but it felt really good.

      Or maybe skip the sound and get your point across another way:

      “Not so hot after all, huh, Skippy?”

      “Wow, you’re the man.”

      I’m not sure if that helps, but I hope so.