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Choosing nouns (1 Viewer)

vranger

Staff member
Supervisor
As I type this, MightyAz has an ongoing thread where he was unhappy with the choice of the word "clothes" in a sentence. He tried changing it out for words like "attire" or "outfit", but they weren't working, either. Mistwolf and I were in favor of sticking with "clothes".

In the same sentence, he'd successfully changed out two adjectives for two better adjectives, without nearly so much angst.

This got me thinking, is there a difference between nouns and adjectives when considering an alternate word? I'm thinking we have less leeway with nouns. An adjective describes a noun, and could give the noun many options. A shirt could be brown or red, collared or not, long or short-sleeved, breast pocket or bare ... but it's still a shirt. It can be a rugby shirt, a golf shirt, a dress shirt, or a t-shirt. It's still a shirt. If you look up synonyms for "shirt", most of them won't work except for specific situations (blouse if a female is wearing it, although a female could still have on a ... shirt).

A noun should be descriptive, but a noun is a thing. We want to name the right thing. So if a character is going to travel, it might be on a path, a trail, a track, a road, or a highway. But these are not synonyms. Each names a particular type of route, and when we pick the correct one, we establish a picture for the reader.

Any time one of these questions comes to mind, I look for some blogs or lessons. It saves me the time of trying to figure out something other people have already spent the effort for. ;-) What did I find on this? Very little.

The most enlightening advice I found didn't discuss "noun synonyms", but more specific nouns, and I thought that a very good technique to keep in mind.

So in that blog, an example of a less specific noun is dog, more specific is golden retriever, and most specific is the dog's name, "Max". So instead of "The dog curled up on his favorite spot", you can have "Max, his golden retriever, curled up on his favorite sofa cushion." This added significant color to the sentence without adding more than the one existing adjective.

I agree with this blog, and I believe it answers my question. We're not looking for a synonym for a noun, but a more specific noun where it applies.

In Az's example, neither "attire" nor "outfit" are more specific than "clothes". However, they are uncommon words which may stick the reader on the word rather than the message ... something we never want to do.

Az's sentence was "His clothes portrayed the same forlorn outlook".

So how does he get more specific with clothes? Maybe something like "His threadbare jeans and faded shirt portrayed the same forlorn outlook". I added two adjectives, but I think I can get away with it.

What a nice "find" for me. Now along with every copula I type, and every occurrence of my personal most overworked word (could), I'll be eyeballing every noun with this in mind.

Folks, writing is WORK! :)
 

TheMightyAz

Mentor
As I type this, MightyAz has an ongoing thread where he was unhappy with the choice of the word "clothes" in a sentence. He tried changing it out for words like "attire" or "outfit", but they weren't working, either. Mistwolf and I were in favor of sticking with "clothes".

In the same sentence, he'd successfully changed out two adjectives for two better adjectives, without nearly so much angst.

This got me thinking, is there a difference between nouns and adjectives when considering an alternate word? I'm thinking we have less leeway with nouns. An adjective describes a noun, and could give the noun many options. A shirt could be brown or red, collared or not, long or short-sleeved, breast pocket or bare ... but it's still a shirt. It can be a rugby shirt, a golf shirt, a dress shirt, or a t-shirt. It's still a shirt. If you look up synonyms for "shirt", most of them won't work except for specific situations (blouse if a female is wearing it, although a female could still have on a ... shirt).

A noun should be descriptive, but a noun is a thing. We want to name the right thing. So if a character is going to travel, it might be on a path, a trail, a track, a road, or a highway. But these are not synonyms. Each names a particular type of route, and when we pick the correct one, we establish a picture for the reader.

Any time one of these questions comes to mind, I look for some blogs or lessons. It saves me the time of trying to figure out something other people have already spent the effort for. ;-) What did I find on this? Very little.

The most enlightening advice I found didn't discuss "noun synonyms", but more specific nouns, and I thought that a very good technique to keep in mind.

So in that blog, an example of a less specific noun is dog, more specific is golden retriever, and most specific is the dog's name, "Max". So instead of "The dog curled up on his favorite spot", you can have "Max, his golden retriever, curled up on his favorite sofa cushion." This added significant color to the sentence without adding more than the one existing adjective.

I agree with this blog, and I believe it answers my question. We're not looking for a synonym for a noun, but a more specific noun where it applies.

In Az's example, neither "attire" nor "outfit" are more specific than "clothes". However, they are uncommon words which may stick the reader on the word rather than the message ... something we never want to do.

Az's sentence was "His clothes portrayed the same forlorn outlook".

So how does he get more specific with clothes? Maybe something like "His threadbare jeans and faded shirt portrayed the same forlorn outlook". I added two adjectives, but I think I can get away with it.

What a nice "find" for me. Now along with every copula I type, and every occurrence of my personal most overworked word (could), I'll be eyeballing every noun with this in mind.

Folks, writing is WORK! :)

I'm glad it inspired you to dig deeper. :) It's actually one of the reasons I thought it was worth posting. All too often people reach for words and don't consider the broader implications (if, hopefully, they are there to be found). There's a reason lots of courses, writers and books on writing recommend every writer should at least dabble in poetry, and that's it makes you consider every word and try to make every word do some extra work if possible. As you said, writing is WORK.

It's easy to take words for granted as you scan the page when reading. Most people do. But well placed words, with underlying baggage and meaning, CAN create an underlying landscape, a subtext, that the reader may not be aware of consciously, but will pick up a 'feeling' subconsciously. That's my aim when choosing some words. Not in all cases. That would be MADNESS!
 

vranger

Staff member
Supervisor
It's easy to take words for granted as you scan the page when reading. Most people do. But well placed words, with underlying baggage and meaning, CAN create an underlying landscape, a subtext, that the reader may not be aware of consciously, but will pick up a 'feeling' subconsciously. That's my aim when choosing some words. Not in all cases. That would be MADNESS!

Bingo. It's my firm belief that when reading most fiction, once they begin the reader should be unaware they are reading. They should be experiencing the story ... seeing the story in their head as they read. They should hear the characters as they speak, feel the tension when characters encounter problems or danger.

Most of what we study to improve is "what not to do" that makes the reader realize he's reading. So bad spelling, a wrong word, ignorance of a real-world fact, a continuity mistake, atrocious grammar, a sentence they have to go over again to understand, et cetera, pops the reader back into his head and out of our story. The "right" things carry the reader along on our wave of imagination without letting the wave break. Those are page turners.
 

TheMightyAz

Mentor
Bingo. It's my firm belief that when reading most fiction, once they begin the reader should be unaware they are reading. They should be experiencing the story ... seeing the story in their head as they read. They should hear the characters as they speak, feel the tension when characters encounter problems or danger.

Most of what we study to improve is "what not to do" that makes the reader realize he's reading. So bad spelling, a wrong word, ignorance of a real-world fact, a continuity mistake, atrocious grammar, a sentence they have to go over again to understand, et cetera, pops the reader back into his head and out of our story. The "right" things carry the reader along on our wave of imagination without letting the wave break. Those are page turners.

Absolutely. I always read my stuff out loud to get a feel for that internal voice the reader may be using. Anything that I feel breaks the flow, even in lengthy sentences, I give a good going through. I save that type of close scrutiny for the final draft though. Once they're on a flow, they'll just have pick ups they're not aware of, rather like that old techniques of flashing an advertisement up mid film, not long enough to register consciously, but long enough to make them thirsty or hungry.
 

TheMightyAz

Mentor
Here's a perfect example of what I mean:

'His clothes portrayed the same forlorn outlook: faded denim jeans and jacket, grey V-necked jumper, and white shirt, buttoned to the very top. Plimsolls, once white with blue edging, now only bore the green and brown scars from visits to Ashton Woods. His mousy, shoulder length hair was a shadow too, its fringe a peeper’s curtain. Atop his head a flat cap, plaid and worn, rescued from his father’s work shed at the foot of the garden. It was a tad too big and often rocked gently on his ears as he walked.'

It's just a description, nothing more ... but there's LOTS in here:

His clothes portrayed the same forlorn outlook

A throw back, re-enforcement and broadening of what the first paragraph meant.

faded denim jeans and jacket, grey V-necked jumper, and white shirt, buttoned to the very top.

Why not just 'top'? Because that tells us he's protective. He wants to be wrapped as tightly as possible in his clothes.

Plimsolls, once white with blue edging, now only bore the green and brown scars from visits to Ashton Woods.

Why 'scars' and not 'scuffs'? To be discovered ... but suffice to say, there's a reason for it being there. I also introduce the reader to Ashson Woods.

His mousy, shoulder length hair was a shadow too, its fringe a peeper’s curtain.

He's a peeper. He doesn't look out at the world, he peeps, not always taking in everything but rather what he feels he needs to. He's insular.

Atop his head a flat cap, plaid and worn, rescued from his father’s work shed at the foot of the garden

He might not like his father now, but he still wants to hold onto the idea he once did. He rescued the idea, not wanting to see it burn entirely

It was a tad too big and often rocked gently on his ears as he walked.

But he'll never be able to fill his father's boots. He'll always feel at odds with him and inferior in some way.
 
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Phil Istine

WF Veterans
There are usually more choices with adjectives than nouns. It seems better to choose a noun that is compatible with the focal character in order to help provide him/her with more life.
For instance, my grandfather would have been more likely to say 'spiv' or 'wide boy', whereas I would probably go for 'conman' or 'con merchant'. Know your character and try to keep the word appropriate.
 
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