No, this post will not actually tell you how to find the “right” word. Instead, I will try to convince you that the right word is the one that you want to write anyway. In other words, writing is about voice–your voice–and about communication, in a way that is uniquely you. We all end up imitating the writers that we have read or that we like and admire, but we also adopt and borrow styles from multiple authors, so that the mishmash that is our voice ends up to be something unique and distinctive. And that is a good thing. No matter what your teacher says.
If you don’t believe me that voice is important, consider my own reading habits. When I go to read about politics, I am just as likely to read David Brooks as I am Paul Krugman. I don’t agree with David Brooks on a multitude of issues, but I like the way he writes, the way he constructs his arguments, and the way he crafts his sentences. The voice draws me back to him, and I learn about writing by reading him.
In the same way, I love reading Cormac McCarthy, a novelist with a very distinctive voice, very different from David Brooks, indeed. McCarthy is the author of The Road, and he’s, well, great. I love the way he writes, whether it’s about Mexico in the 1930s or about a post-apocalyptic family. Some people hate his style, though. See B. R. Meyers’s A Reader’s Manifesto: An Attack on the Growing Pretentiousness in American Literary Prose for someone who hates the style or voice of Cormac McCarthy.
Voice is important, and it should be unique, which means that when you are searching for a word to use, simply write the word down. Maybe there isn’t a perfect word, or maybe you don’t know it. And if you donit know it, that means it isn’t your word, or your voice. Instead, rewrite it to use a word that you do know. If that means that you have to rework the entire sentence, then do it.
Whatever you do, don’t just consult the thesaurus, because, well, you aren’t the thesaurus, and anything that comes out of the thesaurus does not come from you. It’s the thesaurus writing, not you. Robert Masello puts it this way in his Robert’s Rules of Writing: 101 Unconventional Lessons Every Writer Needs to Know:
It’s as if you’ve swapped your customary Hawaiian shirts for a three-piece suit and a watch fob. If you think people won’t notice, think again. (Rule 3: Throw away your thesaurus.)
I love that image. Partly because I wear both Hawaiian shirts and three-piece suits, although not usually at the same time. I also love it because it is so jarring, the juxtaposition of the Hawaiian shirt with the three-piece suit makes me chuckle. They don’t go together. And neither does someone else speaking through you. It’s not your voice.
The voice should be yours, so be confident in it and let your own voice shine through.