Beautiful words are daunting.
Thankfully, beautiful words aren’t what we’re looking for. Since beauty is subjective anyway, it’s difficult to find any one qualification that makes a beautiful word. Think about it. What makes something poetic? Rhyming? Not necessarily. Syllables? Nope. Metaphors? Not at all. The only thing common to everything we call poetic is beauty, and that’s subjective. What makes it poetic?
Simple answer: it’s the Right Word.
The Right Word could have many definitions and facets. It could be exactly what it says, the correct word for a specific instance. Or it could be a sentence, again perfect in that space. Or it could be a paragraph, artfully short or vivid. The Right Word is any selection of words that happens to be perfect for its situation.
Think about that for a moment. Beautiful words are just perfect. That’s it. In order to write beautifully, you just have to write… perfectly.
It’s sounding a lot less fantastic now, isn’t it? Perfect writing isn’t easy. Every word has to be the Right Word for that situation. Everything has to be thought out. But that’s not true, actually. If you want to be perfect, by all means, do spend every moment of your life contemplating the next word you put down— but it’s not that difficult. Often, you don’t need to fill a page with Right Words. You just have to have enough, in the right places, that the rest can be ignored.
But first, let’s think about what makes the Right Word. How can you tell what the situation requires? That’s fairly easy as well: figure out what you’re trying to do with this paragraph, sentence, or word. What reaction are you trying to evoke? Whatever your answer, that will give you the criteria to look for. Do you need a word that feels gooey and disgusting at the same time? How about crunchy and delicious? How about gooey, crunchy, disgusting, and delicious? (McDonald’s cheeseburger, just saying.) The Right Word is less a matter of how many words you know— it’s more a matter of how you feel about different words, and how that fits with what you want other people to feel.
You can see this in play if you look at poetry or beautifully-written prose. Try substituting a single word with a synonym. Does it give the same effect? Does it read the same way? It often happens that it isn’t about the true meaning of the word, but of the general, obscure feeling the word gives in the mind. The same goes for sentence structure, and different imagery techniques. This goes especially for when a writer breaks a rule. Look at the rule, look at the infraction, and see if it would work any other way. For instance, Star Trek’s main slogan breaks the split infinitive rule (when you have a verb like “to be” or “to run”, you can’t put anything between the “to” and the next word).
Space, the final frontier. These are the voyages of the starship Enterprise. Its five-year mission: to explore strange new worlds, to seek out new life and new civilizations, to boldly go where no man has gone before.
Would it read half as well if you said, “to go boldly”? How about “boldly to go”? How about this: “to go where no man has gone before… boldly.” It doesn’t work any of those ways. Even though the grammar police cringe, that broken rule is allowed. It’s a case of the Right Word.
The Right Word creates memorable phrases because the words are so perfect. Here’s my favorite quote from Laini Taylor’s Days of Blood and Starlight:
Bitter, bitter, this desolation of angels. (GoodReads)
I tried to read the book and failed, but that quote stared out at me from the back cover until I finally picked it up again. I love that quote so much, and not really because of the emotion of the main character— because of the Right Words. Why is it a fragment of a sentence? Why is “bitter” repeated? Why is it the desolation of angels, and why doesn’t she call the angels by their real name, or by the name of the one responsible? It could be the character saying, “I hate the things Akiva did”. That sounds stupid in comparison, because the original is so full of Right Words.
Okay, we’ve established that I like perfect quotes, but how does one actually get better at this? Knowing what the sentence says is fine, but that doesn’t help all that much. How do you find Right Words?
Well… That part is up to you. It’s your vocabulary, and your emotions regarding each word. When you need a specific word, you’re the best person qualified to find it. So, the only way to help at this step is this: practice. Practice, practice, practice. Write a sentence, or a paragraph, or a short story, then ask yourself what you’re trying to convey. Start swapping words in and out, thinking about how they fit with your purpose for the sentence. It might not seem perfect, but keep working. Mess with the sentence. Juxtapose things, use metaphors, repeat, and structure in parallel. All those tools you can find in a high school literary analysis textbook, try them all. Not all of them will work for your purposes, but keep working with them. They’re tools, not decorations never to be used.
It’s hard. It’s long. It’s worthy of hair-tearing at times. But this is how you get better at anything. Practice it. Read it. Mess with it. Always, always, improve. That’s the way it works. The Right Word is not easy, but the Right Word begets beautiful words. Know what you’re trying to say, and you’ll figure out how to say it in the best possible way.
Update: Miriam Joy posted this post on her blog, as a follow-up to my On Writing Beautifully. She details the process I wish I could have given here, emphasizing the importance of seeing the world in a specific way and making connections no one else would. Read her post.