Bridge to Story

From Fancy to Precise

Good writing never means multi-syllable words or sermon type oratory. You may know how to spell (or at least look-up) the word 'gambol', but if you mean that the character skipped, then pause. Open up the dictionary and find definition of the "fancy" word you're considering.

After reading its definition -

Gambol, n, "To leap or spring, in dancing or sporting; now chiefly [written] of animals or children."

If you use the online Oxford English Dictionary, besides the definition you'll also see what years the word was commonly used, this one chiefly in use from to 1508 up to 1850.

In writing what we are after is detail, precision. We aim to bring the visual to life - close the dictionary and use skip.

Do you remember this choice of opening style for a short story? Starting like this utilized the Factual, Journalistic beginning.

 “At five a.m., the little girl was pronounced dead.”

Did you notice that beyond being factual there was some detail choices made in the words used in this opening? Can you find that detail here? Read it again and see what you come up with.

Did you notice the time of morning? Five a.m..

It is a good detail, one that will bring a reader to wonder why that time? What happened this early?

But now take a look at the adjective - little. ‘Little’ could mean many things. Small in size. Young. The quantity or shape of something.

What edits would take this opening line to a level where the reader would know enough to want to keep on reading? How can we choose better words for little and girl? Those seem so – blah…

Example Toggle


Let’s use that thesaurus and get working with replacements for ‘little’.

 “At five a.m., the diminutive flaxen-haired six year-old lass was pronounced dead.”

Whoa. What happened here? Possibly too far over the top? Maybe we’ve moved from Precise into Fancy? Yep. Fancy will never mean good writing.

Every new writer will fall from time to time into this trap. It comes from the love of words. And that love of words is only a fault if it is never cultivated to become a love of using words with precision. Don't feel bad; just learn  a wise word change that is bent on detail. Words that might bring this opening line up a notch, without beating it to death; as the change above has.

When you are precise with the words you choose you need first to use less of them. The bad news is, when it comes to novice writers, adjectives, adverbs and precision are three tools that rarely get used wisely.

Beyond using less words, is the issue of choosing words correctly, precisely. Let’s jump into that in the exercise.

Lesson Exercise 1 Toggle

Lesson Exercise 1:

The goal with Adjectives and Adverbs is to use them wisely - for best effect, and sparingly, for the same reason.

Adjectives—Description words, like big, wild, white, pretty

AdverbsHow words, (usually ending in –ly) like quickly, adoringly, softly, briefly

To do this, ask yourself about the meaning/feeling/attitude you where trying to get the reader to understand, experience, or recognize by the weak word choice 'little'?

Young, you say? You meant she was a young child?

Did you have in mind a small twelve year-old girl? A petite nine year-old girl? Ah! A blonde six year-old named Goldilocks. Gotcha. It's a fine idea to use your computer's Thesaurus on the word 'little'; there are nine replacement suggestions if you highlight your word 'little' and right-mouse click the Synonyms option in your MS Word Program:

  • Small - meaning size
  • Modest - meaning amount
  • Slight - meaning shape
  • Petite - meaning size
  • Diminutive - meaning size
  • Tiny - meaning size or amount
  • Minute - meaning amount or quantity
  • Miniature - meaning size

But you meant 'little' in age. Hummm. Consider: “At five a.m., the six year-old girl was pronounced dead.”

Can you guess what makes this second change a more effective one, where the first try was an act of overkill? Precision. Because you asked yourself "What is it I mean by 'little'?" None of those Synonyms would have been appropriate for this detail when what the writer meant by ‘little’ was ‘six years old’.

Ouch. This may be a hard lesson for some of you, but there's one thing you must do with your own work:

When faced with more than one adjective, (description word) or adverb, (how word for verbs) kill only the one that says precisely what you want to say.