On the Specificity of Words

There we are, just sitting at our laptop/desktop/tablet/spiral notebook plugging away at what’s going to be the next New York Times bestseller. We’ve got a frosty or steaming beverage to our side, some trusty mood music to help us find the atmosphere to write from, and a total tune-out from the outside world barring a spouse, child, or medical emergency.

writer's block

And then we hit a roadblock. Not that the plot isn’t going anywhere or our characters aren’t interesting, but we can’t break out of this limiting bubble of how we describe stuff. We have fallen into the Wonderland of Word choice.

For all you non-writer types, this is an unkind place even for the best of us. There’s no rabbit to help us out, no mad cat to maybe kinda sort of show us some way other than the way we are currently going, and we all know to avoid the tea party. That’s just nonsense.

Why is word choice such a big deal? What is it about selecting the most precise word that we feel like it’d be easier to learn brain surgery and pluck the word out of someone else’s head?

Because it’s the difference between perfect and specifically imperfect.

Now, by perfect, I mean the stereotypical, perfect in every way image that we see when we design something on CAD. It’s perfect, we can tell there aren’t any flaws in it, and that’s the problem. There are no signs of life.

But the specifically imperfect we all know and love. There are flaws, dings, and some outright jalopies, but that’s the life force. That’s the little voice that says this could be real, even if it’s about curses of obedience.

That’s also why we have the modern-day thesaurus. So we could find the word that fits. I love my thesaurus.

For example, let’s take a look at the word hate. Right off our heads there are some other words that basically mean hate. It means to have intense negative feelings. Now, I’m going to type the word again and hear it in your mind.


The word snips off at the end. It’s a pop of sound that lets you know something bad is going to happen. The word pinches us in our mind.

Let’s look at another one: Loathe. It also means intense negative feelings, but listen.


It doesn’t have the snip and pop of hate. There’s no short way to say it. It’s like you’re announcing a grudge just using it. It lasts longer.

Or how about the word despise? Holy cow, now we’re dedicating multiple syllables to say the same thing as hate. Listen again.


Even the last sound of it lingers. That ‘s’ that’s masquerading as a z. Only the second one does that. The whole word sounds harsh, and more so than loathe. This must be a negative feeling that’s lasted generations and was sung about in ballads.

Put that into context now:

I hate banana bread.

Response: Okay, I won’t cook it for you. How about cinnamon rolls instead?

I loathe banana bread.

Response: What, are you allergic? Did banana bread drop a brick on your head?

I despise banana bread

Response: What did this quick bread product ever do to you? What has caused such unbridled animosity?

If you want to try an interesting experiment (it can also be called research or a listening and understanding exercise), try listening to a familiar song in a different language. Disney songs are by far the easiest. In fact, here are ten of them, courtesy of Buzzfeed:


Listen for the sounds. Then find the words that use those sounds to describe what’s going on in your written world. The promise is that the world will come alive in more ways than we ever imagined.


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