Tuesday, July 19, 2011


About a century ago, Chicago canals destroyed a separation between the Mississippi River and one of the healthier Great Lakes, Lake Michigan. Then, an infestation of Asian carp into the Mississippi River basin threatened a carp invasion of Lake Michigan. With this threat came discussions on how best to reduce or eliminate the Asian carp population before it overran or destroyed the delicate ecosystem of Lake Michigan.

Selling Asian carp to Chinese residents for their daily meals seemed reasonable. Except the cost of fresh carp in China was less than the price of a days’ old catch from America. Then someone decided to offer the fish to Chinese restaurant owners, using enticing words like
“wild catch”
to describe their product. The marketing plan worked and fish sales jumped.

Whether the sale of fish to China will alleviate the problem of infestation in America has yet to be determined, and remains a topic for another day. The point is that the right words can mitigate or intensify a situation, generate success or failure.

During an argument between husband and wife over the preparation of breakfast, the words “You always season the eggs wrong” will likely garner a less favorable response than “Can you use less salt tomorrow?” One emphasizes the negative, the other offers hope ... or at least helps the cook save face.

The right words can also make or break a novel’s scene or an entire story. Bland dialogue or action without reaction does not heighten tension. The words "mowed lawn surrounded by trees" does not conjure up pleasurable images as easily as "fresh-cut grass bordered by shrubs of blossoming hibiscus."

Can you taste the drizzle of lime juice on a fresh-cut papaya; smell the hint of cinnamon in apple pie cooling on the kitchen counter; feel the itch of a healing surgical incision; enjoy the sight of rain clouds after an extended drought; hear a faint sob of dispair near the closed casket?

Using the right words can activate a child's imagination, avert an argument, stimulate an emotional response, or even make a sale that might reverse the infestation of a lake.

Is there anything more powerful than words?


  1. Yes, there's nothing like choosing the right words to avert an argument!

  2. Lovely images you conjure up there. This is SO my weak point. I even mentioned it in my Wednesday blog post. Brilliant minds must think alike. =D

  3. Kate and Donna, It really is all a balancing act. Don't say too much or too little.
    I don't write romantic scenes (at least I haven't yet) but when I read a scene I prefer to have much left to the imagination. In mysteries and thrillers, having them walk into the bedroom or get undressed is enough for me. Regardless of the subject matter, I think it best to say only enough to stimulate the reader's imagination. The reason Sue Grafton won't allow movies of her books is so her readers' individual images of Kinsey Millhone aren't supplanted.

  4. Sometimes it takes a while to find that one right word.

  5. Alex, I'm probably not the only one who benefits from the word processor Thesaurus at such times!

  6. Advertising writers and PR people are very skilled at this sort of thing. We can learn a lot from them.

    Tossing It Out

  7. I sometimes spend hours on figuring out the right word to use in a story: you're right, they're so very important!

  8. Damyanti, I once read of a famous author who spent an entire day looking for the perfect word, then spent the next day changing it.
    There must be a happy medium somewhere.


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