Wednesday, April 13

First Impressions: The Right Word for the Right Idea

By Janice Hardy, @Janice_Hardy

With so many words to choose from, it can be daunting to know which one will work best for your story. Strong nouns and verbs are a must, but even strong words can carry the wrong impression and cause the reader to make the wrong assumption. Are your words making the right first impression?

Class is in Session
At a recent workshop, I had the attendees do some exercises to get them thinking about how to describe specific emotions from a particular POV. They all did great, but some very interesting things surfaced as they read their samples out loud.

Certain words triggered certain assumptions.

One sample was to write about an optimistic criminal. It was clear in the sample that the POV knew they were going to get away with this, but when the time came to name the POV, everyone guessed some type of law enforcement -- even though the POV was clearly stealing.

What gave the “readers” this impression?

One word.


The author had used the word team to describe the criminal’s friends who were coming to help/aid/save him. It’s an accurate word, but team carries with it a positive vibe. Team is law enforcement, military, the good guys. And team is what was picked up on despite all the great words that said “criminal.”

Someone suggested “crew” as an alternative, because crew has a criminal vibe (unless you’re talking about boats of course). If the POV had been waiting for his crew there would have been no doubt that he was a criminal.

Either word on its own can work in either situation, but combined with the other details of the scene, a picture emerged in the reader’s mind. They made assumptions based on what was read. It didn’t matter that their assumptions were wrong. The author put those assumptions there.

So how does this affect your current WIP?

How many wrong assumptions might be in your work? Do you have any words that imply something else, even though they’re also legitimate for how you use them? A word might have a certain definition, but if the most popular and wildly used one is not what you mean, odds are the readers will get the wrong idea.

We had one sample that was from an old woman’s POV. The first word: Edith. I immediately thought of an old woman, and the author followed this right up by mentioning a cane. Two clues that told me who this person was without ever having to say “she was an old woman.”

Had the name been Tiffani, would old woman have come to mind? Probably not. The cane would have been a strange thing, might even have made me pause. Was she injured? Blind? But not old.

Try reading your work with this in mind.
  • Does your POV use words that fit their gender? Race? Age group? Education? Religious beliefs?
  • Does the descriptive words convey the ideas, tone, mood of what you’re trying to say?
  • Are there ambiguous words that could have several different meanings?
One word can make a difference. You want every word to draw your world and your story the way you see it. Because you really don’t get a second chance to make a first assumption.


  1. Great post. Yeah, I think about this all the time when I write. You can have the right word so as to speak, and yet it is totally the wrong word for the character or context or POV or culture etc etc. There are so many reasons why a word can be wrong. Thanks for the thought provoking post.

  2. I love this post. Seeing how subtle details like the tone of a word or the expectations of a name or prop can alter a reader's perceptions is one of my favourite exercises!

  3. Great post-- I was just thinking about this the other day. When I'm stuck on finding the right word to convey what I want to say, it can take a long time, and it's hard to move on with a so-so word when you know there can be better. My current struggle: the right word for someone who takes something (in nature, let's say a random berry). My immediate word: recipient. But that's not right, this person didn't have something given to him (or did he? does that count in nature?). It can be hard to continue when you are stuck on a word!

    Thanks for the post! I always find your blog helpful!

  4. I live by my thesaurus. I've been stuck so many times. The one in Word is good, but sometimes I have to search through lists before I hit the right one.

    Between crew and team, I would have said gang.

  5. I love this post. Great, very useful information here. I need to look over my WIP for this very thing. Thanks!!!

  6. I think I'd have gone with gang as well. Crew suggests a work group, like construction. Gang is either criminal or a close knit group of boys (like Little Rascals).

    I love my thesaurus. And I completely understand how hard it is to find the right word. Another book I use to help me find the word I want is my Flip Dictionary. Some entries are like a thesaurus, but there are lists (types of fabric, military ranks) and descriptions.

  7. Yeah, I've been facing this in the rough sketch I've done of a NEW! Shiny! Idea! that hit me. I'm not concerned about it yet, but a verb I use (and has nice alliteration with the context) has 2 meanings. I mean one, but the context pulls out the other meaning, which makes the perspective character sound like a villain.

    The verb? "to take", as a transitive. With the direct object as a person. And an indirect object won't fit in the sentence as written.

    Yeah, SO not my intended meaning, there.

  8. It was really interesting to see to see how certain words made all the difference in the perception of who the paragraph was about!

    I plan to read some shorter work out loud with other writers in an attempt to ensure that I am actually saying what I mean.

    Thank you so much again!

  9. Love this concept! On the flip side, I really enjoy the idea of using a specific word on PURPOSE in order to mislead the reader.
    For example, if the thieves really are a group of police officers, but you don't want the reader to find that out until later, using 'crew' or 'gang' might keep them off your trail until you're ready to make the big reveal.

  10. Tabitha: Most welcome!

    Paul: Same here. I just love the subtly of it all.

    Melissa: When I know I need a better word and don't want to slow down my flow, I just make a note like (need word) or (need name) or whatever the detail is. That way I can keep writing and deal with it later when I have time.

    Anne: Gang is a good one! I can't believe none of us thought of that.

    Dawn: Most welcome!

    Jaleh: Gang to me can also be an urban gang, much more "gangster" and thug-like than a cat burglar crew. Oo a flip dictionary. That sounds handy.

    Carradee: Oopsy hehe. Yeah, I've done that. What you want to say just so comes across wrong. Those are toughies.

    Elizabeth: It was, wasn't it? I loved that about that exercise. and you're most welcome ;)

    Candace: Oh, totally, that can be fun. Mix that in with a few other subtle but there clues and you could really fool them.

  11. Gang was my first thought when I was reading that description. Great post, and I love that old woman/young woman picture.

  12. Fascinating. Thanks for pointing this out. Things to think about as I continue to write and edit. Ty!