November 17, 2016

The Right Word

By Doyne Phillips, Managing Editor for Southern Writers Magazine

Charles Osgood’s recent retirement and departure from CBS News Sunday Morning warranted a show dedicated to his history in journalism and especially with the show. He was interviewed about his writing and it led to a point on choosing your words. Osgood said, “All the words are wrong except the right one.”

I know we all have searched for that right word. We are sent on that search for various reasons.  We search for a word that is more specific in explaining ourselves. We search for a word that carries more emotion, or humor or drama. Sometimes we search because what we have written just doesn’t sound right.

Sounding right can be confusing. The confusion can come from being driven by what we hear in everyday conversation. Many times a word will speak to a portion of our society but not to everyone. A good example is the abbreviated conversation used with texting. I have to ask my kids what things mean. Also words used that are colloquialisms. Examples here are the various names used for soda, soda pop, soft drinks and Coke. Which do you use?

Another confusing aspect of which word is the right word could be an international translation. One word in our country will not translate well in Britain. Our gas is their “petrol”, tennis shoes are their “plimsolls” and phone calls are their “ring me up” that is if the line isn’t “engaged”. It can get tricky.
With all that in mind an even harder translation is modern day slang which can change moment to moment. Social media can take the word of the moment to a position of ancient history in just a few million hits of the internet. So what is our answer?

First I think we should use slang and little known words sparingly. Don’t slow down your reader with something they question. It could cause them to break from your story and check with Google concerning the word you use. I have a friend that goes to Google during our regular conversations to confirm some of my stories or terms. I’m not offended but pleased to know I have been confirmed. But a reader leaving your short story or book is a disruption. Make sure the little known word is necessary to complete your story.

Secondly you may want to consider an explanation of the term. If it important to the story you may need to do so. Doing so may also tell you if it seems cumbersome to your writing, the story or your reader. Put it in and if it doesn’t work take it out.

Finally consider your readers and their knowledge of that particular world this word is used in. Whether that world is business, art, entertainment, science or sports, are they aware of that world? 

Are they savvy to its language?  If so go with it. If not don’t go there.  As Osgood said, “All the words are wrong except the right one.” 

I hope this helps you find it.                   


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