Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Using Word Lists

Words and Word Lists
Helpful Hints by Judy Vandiver

There is an old saying that "a picture is worth a thousand words.” But unless you are writing a picture book, that won't work for most authors. We are people who are in love with words. We love the way they sound, the way they roll off the tongue, they way they make the reader visualize a picture - the one in the writer's mind. Choosing the right word can sometimes be difficult, but it doesn't have to be.

When I sit down to my computer, I rarely have a major writer's block. Ideas run amuck in my brain. My blocks come in smaller packages. Choosing the exact word I want can stop me like my mother yelling my full name. I can come to a place in my story where I want to say, "Tom was nervous.” The editor side of my brain cautions that I am telling the reader instead of showing them. So I work at showing.

I use the backspace key and start again. "Tom swallowed the lump in his throat." Ok. Good. That shows the nervousness. Editor brain screams my full name and tells me that is trite and over done. Backspace again. I ask myself what else Tom can do with his throat. Bob his Adam's apple, clear his throat, cough? Why does it have to be in his throat at all?

I've developed an aid I keep on my writing desk for times my backspace key is getting a workout. It's my handy little Word List. I have a list of words that are 'sight' words, 'sound' words, 'hearing' words, 'he said / she said' words. For this example, I might pick up a list of 'feeling' words.

As an example, let me tell you ten words I spot on the list at a glance. I let my eyes swoop the page and choose words at random. Bridled - Chilled - Dire - Frustrated - Imposing -Muddled - Private - Rigid - Shruken - Suffocated. Then I try to use the words to show Tom's nervousness. Here are some examples I came up with:

Tom bridled his nerves.
A chill encased Tom's heart..
He was in dire need of a glass of water.
Frustration gripped him.
An imposing lump rendered Tom speechless. (See, I got that lump in the throat in there!)
Tom couldn't make sense of his muddled thoughts.
Tom's legs went rigid.
He shrunk to the back of the crowd.
The doubt suffocated him.

Did you notice I only listed nine examples? That because I won't always use every word I pick from the list. And I don't actually write these down. I let my eyes rove the list, thinking of ways I could use a variety of words to show Tom's nervousness. I may come up with several. What if I wrote:

Doubt suffocated Tom and an imposing lump rendered him speechless. He was in dire need of a cool drink, but his rigid legs wouldn't let him shrink to the back of the crowd.

We are playing with the words here and they may not be what I would end up with, however, they show the reader a picture rather than telling them, "Tom was nervous." The end product gives the reader a chance to visualize Tom. And I used far less than a thousand words. (Of course, the story isn't finished yet... I only need 74,967 more words and I have a novel.)

The paragraph above could be the beginning of a novel. We don't know much about Tom yet, but he's in a crowd of people and for some reason he wants out of there. What happened? What did he doubt? The writer's mind swirls with ideas. I'll let you take it from there.

It doesn't take long to come up with lists of words. Of course, they're all there in your handy dictionary, but having choice words on categorized lists makes finding the right one speedier. And you can find categorized lists very quickly on the internet. Here is a link to one of my favorites:  This list was designed to help with suicidal teenagers, but the list is helpful to anyone looking for a word that might validate feelings.

From that link, I found another list of Common Negative Feelings. If you want more, try googling descriptive words, sound words, or whatever it is you need at the moment. Print these lists and put them in a notebook. Keep it on your writing desk. If you are like me, the editor side of your brain will soon be shouting your full name, you'll pause, but your brain won't freeze. You'll reach for a thousand words and paint a picture.

Note: If this article helps you or you have additional ideas on word lists, leave a comment or contact me at

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