Have you ever been flying through a document, just typing up a hurricane of awesome, when all of a sudden—WHAM. Your smack up against a word choice like it’s a brick wall. You get to that significant emotion, facial expression, or physical movement that needs to be described succinctly, or else it distracts from and slows down the scene– you need to find the perfect word.
Everything else you’ve written up till now is so beautiful! You want to keep that rolling. But you can’t move forward. It’s a unique, acutely painful form of writer’s block.
Well, hello there, Ms. Stuck-on-a-Sentence. I’d like to introduce you to the Wordstorm.
A brainstorm of words
Most of us are familiar with the concept of a brainstorm. It’s a frenzied collection of jotted ideas, all connected to a singular goal. For instance, we might brainstorm possible events that might spice up our novel. We might brainstorm potential character traits for a love interest. It’s all about sparking ideas, and putting them on paper so they aren’t instantly forgotten.
The Wordstorm isn’t much different. It deals very specifically with a moment in time, a particular sentence. One word. But to find that one perfect word, we need all the options.
Step One: Identify what you’re really looking for
Usually, when we hit upon this word roadblock, it’s because we only have a vague sense of what we’re trying to convey—or, contrarily, an exact sense without a word to pin to it. What’s often bouncing in our heads is a jumble of things that mean only part of what we want, or else come just this close without quite hitting the full precision of what we want to say.
Your Wordstorm will collect these disconnected tidbits in columns on a piece of scrap paper. Make the first column words that come close, but not quite. Make the next column or two for words that perfectly capture only PART of the meaning you want to illustrate.
This part of the process is pure release. I don’t use a thesaurus, dictionary, or anything. I put my feelings on paper, letting every remotely connected idea flow and branch off. Often I wind up creating new columns for tangential word ideas to pursue. As I go, I circle my favorites—the words which come closest. I also circle the adjectives and nouns that could be paired in place of a singular word choice.
Sometimes, that’s enough. Other times, I go to a second step.
Step Two: Cast a wider net
As that flood of word options begins to trickle, I look my highest potential words up in a thesaurus. I like Roget’s 21st Century Thesaurus. It has a really cool concept index at the back, which essentially Wordstorms for you. I keep jotting down likely possibilities as I go because holding them in my head through this process is unreliable! More often than not, I find myself rabbit trailing through potentialities. Amidst the results of one entry, I’ll find the next word to look up, moving closer and closer. I search through that reference book like a dive-bombing eagle on the hunt for elusive prey.
An alternate, commonly overlooked resource is the dictionary. You’d be surprised how often looking up the definitions of the words which come close help you identify one that comes closer, or helps you eliminate options that have meanings or contexts you didn’t anticipate. Embrace the rabbit trail. Follow the little word crumbs, and they will lead you out of the deep dark forest.
The perfect word isn’t as much work as it sounds—promise!
Wordstorming can be a fun and brief exercise. It’s an outlet for an overflow of ideas that helps you narrow them down to the right one. My Wordstorms are often 2-minute things—I’ll confess, I don’t always organize columns. A lot of times, I just list and list words until something clicks enough to either use or chase through a thesaurus. Above, I’ve basically given you the extended version of the process, so you’re fully armed for the trickiest of “perfect word” choice situations.
And remember: if you feel like you’re close, but haven’t quite found what you’re looking for, it’s okay to keep writing so you don’t interrupt your flow! Just write your best words in a row with slashes, like/similar to/ synonymous with/ as in this one, then highlight it for easy finding. Or, follow the offending passage with a searchable group of letters like JKL.
Then, when the word of perfection dawns upon you like a ray of heavenly light, you can easily go back with the document search feature and plug it right in. You can always come back and reconcile your ideas on the second draft. For now, just keep the scene rolling!
About the Writer: Kathryn Tamburri (@KathrynTamburriAuthor) writes clean YA epic fantasy novels which seethe with slow-burn romance. You can find more of her writing tips on The Devo Blog at KathrynTamburri.com, and learn from her publishing journey by subscribing to her fun author newsletter!