The Writer’s Boot Camp


As an apprentice writer, I considered my thesaurus an indispensable tool. I still do, today. Only now, rather than trawling for bigger, fancier, more impressive words, I use my thesaurus to find the right words.

Like paint, words have shades of meaning, color, or nuance. The word walk-to advance or travel on foot at a moderate pace-differs subtly from its synonym saunter, meaning to walk with a leisurely gait. Neither word quite means stroll, to walk leisurely as inclination directs, or meander, to proceed by or take a winding or indirect course. These are words are not interchangeable, although lazy writers use them as if they were.

Writing precisely is hard. It requires us to think carefully, dig deeply, burrow past the generalities scratching the surface. Only when ideas are clear, honed, fully refined, can we select proper words to express them.

Thinking clearly consumes precious energy, and time. Easier and quicker to get close, say almost what you mean, cross your fingers, and hope no one notices.

The problem is, people do notice.

Unfortunately, we rarely hear the truth until it’s too late. We receive, from the agent at the top of our wish list, the editor of a magazine we’ve been dying to write for, the dreaded form-letter rejection. A frustrated reader posts a scathing review of our book on the Internet-or, worse, people buy our book and return it.

In our writing life, we don’t often get second chances.

By taking a few extra minutes to think clearly, write precisely, you can avoid humiliation. Use your thesaurus. It’s one of the most helpful tools in your chest. Then open your dictionary. Even if you think you know a word’s definition, look it up. You may be surprised.

Consider peruse, for example. Many people, even educated folks who should know the difference, think peruse means to read quickly, or scan. In fact, it means to read carefully, in a leisurely way, or to study. Acute, assume, copious, expedient, flaunt, imply, irony, proximity-all these words are commonly misused.

Be good to yourself. Choose the right-not the almost, close to, nearly right-word. Don’t write run if you really mean jog, dart, dash, scurry or scamper. Or use hide if bury, veil, cover or screen would do a better job.

Make a habit of using the dictionary. Think carefully, use words precisely-and your writing will shine!

What are your thoughts on precision? How do you choose the right words to use?

Part 2: Two rules worth breaking


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