"The difference between the almost right word and the right word is really a large matter--it's the difference between the lightning bug and the lightning." --Mark Twain
Good writers bring together words that create pictures, stimulate thought, and stir emotions. "Powerful words harmonize heart and mind as if a symphony," said Toba Beta.
How do you learn to use the right words--words that harmonize? First, collect. circle, and later clip words in context from yellowed paperbacks, magazines and newspapers. Then use them. But not as you did in school by order of teachers of tedium: "Use the word in a sentence that indicates you understand the word's definition." There is a better way:
Learn Words through Play
- Collect words in context. No time just now? Then borrow from my collection. Today's ten examples, listed alphabetically, all begin with the letter T--one letter to expedite checking definitions if you need to.
- Scan the word preceding each selection. By itself a word is like an elm tree in winter, its branches dark and tattered against a grey sky. In context, words take on color like the leafed-out tree, its green variegated by sunlight.
- Notice how the word is used in each selection. Did the context increase your interest in the word?
- Mark the selections you like, and note why they deserve a happy face.
- Choose two or more words, and use each in a sentence or paragraph. Call on your muse and have fun. Think of each as a splash of color in a painting. The activity's purpose is to practice writing well, and not to exemplify a word's definition.
- For feedback, take your selections to your critique group.
- "Somehow the workers always seem to be able to find ingenious ways of evading or even sabotaging the plan. Sometimes, in fact, these evasions take place with the tacit connivance of the foremen, who are no fonder of the restrictive controls on them than the workers are of theirs.” -Unknown
- "The pistol was used in self defense, but when the prosecutor does not pursue the issue of carrying a concealed weapon, the DA's office is giving tacit approval for vigilante behavior." -Unknown
- "Their imprint endures in neat coastal villages, carefully cultivated fields, ... and taciturn men of the sea like Carl Darenberg, Jr., who talks in slow tempo of the fortunes of sportsfishing." -Unknown
- “I picture McCrae, the whimsical but principled free spirit, and Call, McCrae’s taciturn and granite-hard best friend and partner, riding through these dusty streets before leaving Texas on a grand adventure….” –Suzy Banks
- “They are known to be gregarious, exceptionally intelligent primates, and the only apes whose society is said to be matriarchal … and orgiastic: they have sexual interactions several times a day and with a variety of partners. While chimpanzees and gorillas often settle disputes by fierce, sometimes deadly fighting, bonobos commonly make peace by engaging in feverish orgies in which males have intercourse with females and other males, and females with other females. No other great apes—a group that includes eastern gorillas, western gorillas, Bornean orangutans, Sumatran orangutans, chimps and, according to modern taxonomists, human beings—indulge themselves with such abandon." –Paul Raffaele, Smithsonian11/06
- “They point to an Islamicized Europe, where mosques teem and churches go empty; where the Islamist position on almost every critical issue is either adopted or tolerated”. - Dr. Richard Benkin
- “Then Kristin's talk paused, and Elsa looked up to see her holding a dress she had just taken from the telescope. The dress was cheap, too-much-laundered, and the instant defensive words jumped to Elsa's lips…” -Wallace. Stegner The Big Rock Candy Mountain
- “Mrs. Switzer was trying … to get all of Daisy’s things into the battered telescope that lay on the bed.” Ruth Suckow
- “She tried hastily to put on the cover of the bulging telescope and to fasten the straps. One of them broke.” Ruth Suckow
- “For almost sixteen years, Sandy dominated my marriage like a termagant mother-in-law, and now that she is no longer there to edge between us as we walk, Gerdi and I hardly know what to do with our new-found freedom.” - Dayton O. Hyde, 1968
- “Washington’s mother ... was a termagant and a Tory, though his wife was a jewel of affability and charm who endured the rigors of winter encampments with her husband through the war and sustained him through periods of ravaging pessimism.” –Fawn M. Brodie
- “As he ate, a seagull landed on the thrum cap and eyed him quizzically. ” D. Preston & L. Child
- “Then, as if a herdsman had cracked a whip, wildebeest, zebra, gazelle and antelope sweep over the plains, and for a few weeks the Serengeti thrums with hoofs pounding against hard earth. These are sounds our hominid ancestors would have heard. … a scene they may have watched from a hillside overlooking the plains.” – Virginia Morell, Smithsonian ‘06
- The thrumming pulses in her brain had begun to leak into one another like spies whispering secrets but she was still on her feet and … her enemies had not triumphed.” - Joyce Carol Oates
- “Edna Duvalier clambered into the tonneau, scowling and fanning herself impatiently.” -Scott Zesch/Alamo Heights
- These were the days of extra fuel carried in a can, of rear-door tonneaus, acetylene lamps, and rims which were not demountable. The filling station, where it existed in its rudimentary form, was still the mere adjunct of a garage whose weightier business lay in repairs to motors.” -Charles Merz
- “While admirable biographical and critical studies appear from time to time, and here and there a whimsical or trenchant discursive essay like those of Miss Repplier or Dr. Crothers, no one would claim that we approach France or even England in the field of criticism, literary history, memoirs, the bookish essay, and biography.” –Bliss Perry
- “On Jargon … gives trenchant and amusing examples of that disregard for the primary meaning of words to which all writers are liable, whether they are freshmen in college of practicing journalists.” –McCullough & Burgum
- “Though The Devils is quite possibly the most violent of Dostoevsky's novels, it also brims with buffoonery and trenchant social satire.” - Vance Adair
- “He had a selection of weapons laid out on the old pine table: a wicked-looking knife that he claimed was SS equipment, a Walther P38 automatic pistol of the kind Flick had seen German officers carrying, a French policeman's truncheon, a length of black-and-yellow electrical cord that he called a garrote, and a beer bottle with the neck snapped off.” -Ken Follett
- “Police used truncheons and plastic shields to disperse protesters along the narrow streets…” -Unknown
Keep what you write in a notebook or binder. If you like to write, you'll enjoy comparing your early efforts to later work.