The first time I recall obsessing over word choice was a letter to the Tooth Fairy.
I was seven or eight or whatever age you are when you lose the last of your baby teeth and the last of your belief that a winged creature will sneak into your room and swap your blood-flecked molar for a few quarters.
I remember sitting at my desk with my Hello Kitty pencil as I grappled with the message I wanted to convey. I knew my parents were the Tooth Fairy. I also knew they’d been mumbling that money was tight. I didn’t know what that meant exactly, but figured I shouldn’t strain the family coffers by expecting a handout.
On the other hand, I wanted those quarters.
I can’t recall the precise wording of my note, except that I needed to choose between using the word “anyway” or “anyhow” in a sentence suggesting the Tooth Fairy didn’t have to leave me money.
“Anyway” was casual and breezy, and carried a genuine sense of ambivalence about the cash.
“Anyhow” had a forlorn tone, a hint of self-sacrifice. Was that what I wanted to express? Or did it sound melodramatic and manipulative?
I don’t actually remember what I decided. Neither does my mom, who dug through all her old boxes in search of Tooth Fairy notes. She didn’t find the one I just described, though she did unearth this gem:
While I won’t claim I was a child prodigy of an author, I’m surprised to look back now and realize I grasped something pretty important in my anyhow/anyway debate – word choice does matter.
I'm no expert, but here are three tips I can offer when it comes to wise word use:
Watch for unnecessary words. I was aghast the first time someone pointed out how often I used “that” without needing to. Sentences often flow better without it. I knew that he wanted to hump my leg sounds clunkier than I knew he wanted to hump my leg. Search your manuscript and see if you’re a “that” abuser.
Wage an adverb war. I’m not one of those adverb Nazis who insists on eliminating any word that ends in “ly,” but I do keep tabs on my usage. If I find a lot of adverbs creeping into my writing, it generally means I’m getting lazy and “telling” instead of “showing.” Remember when we talked about that?
Learn when to obsess and when to knock it the hell off. Sometimes I catch myself fretting over every little word in a manuscript. I refer to this as "time to drink." Be cautious and deliberate in your word use, but learn when to shut off your internal editor and just let words flow. You can always go back and fix things later, but if you can’t find the right word in the moment, there’s no shame in substituting LKJLKJ (my personal favorite).
Do you have any words to live by when it comes to word choices in writing? Please share.
Oh, and for the record, the Tooth Fairy left the money. The bitch knows how to put out.*
* My mom is going to wash my mouth out with soap for that, but it was totally worth it.