The Lightning Bug versus the Lightning: Thoughts on Word Choice

The “Concerning Craft” series introduces Little Patuxent Review contributors, showcases their work and draws back the curtain to reveal a little of what went into producing it.

Author Matt Tompkins. Photo credit: Kori Tompkins.

Author Matt Tompkins. Photo credit: Kori Tompkins.

Please meet author Matt Tompkins, whose story “The World on Fire” appeared in Little Patuxent Review’s Summer 2015 unthemed issue. The ebook version of Souvenirs and Other Stories (Conium Press) goes on sale today. He works in a library and lives in upstate New York with his wife (who kindly reads his first drafts), his daughter (who prefers picture books) and his cat (who is illiterate). And now, Matt Tompkins:

“The difference between the almost right word and the right word is really a large matter–’tis the difference between the lightning bug and the lightning.” – Mark Twain, in a letter to George Bainton, 1888

I think the sentiment is as applicable to our daily communications as it is to literature: word choice matters; precision and specificity of meaning are important (if frequently overlooked). In a text-heavy culture, words are often all we have to connect with one another. But it also begs the question: how do we select the right word, rather than the almost-right? I don’t claim to succeed every time, but there are some things I keep in mind, while writing and revising, to increase my odds. Here’s a sampling:

Deny the existence of synonyms

No two words are the same. No two words are interchangeable. Whether the difference is one of denotation, or connotation, or simply one of syllables or sounds, no two words are equal. This point is fundamental in recognizing the importance of mindful word choice.

Determine your prime directive

In attempting to choose the right word, I find it especially helpful to consider my primary goal–the one thing I most hope to accomplish with a piece of writing. Ask yourself: Do you intend, above all, to create sweet music for your readers’ ears? Do you want to evoke the richest possible multisensory landscape? Are you trying to compose a picture of your narrator by an accumulation of consistent (or inconsistent, or idiosyncratic, or regional) diction and dialect? Do you want to tell your story in the fewest (and perhaps shortest) words possible, or do you want to pack as much detail as possible into each passage? Chances are, you’re trying to do more than one thing. But being clear about your primary purpose can be especially helpful in breaking ties–in choosing between two otherwise seemingly equivalent words.

Assonance, consonance, and alliteration

Consider this sentence:

The reluctant child shuffled her feet.

This example displays assonance in the short “u” sounds of “reluctant” and “shuffle.” But to what end? These guttural u’s might be better used in a sentence like this: “The glutton gulped down the mussels with gusto.” You can hear (and feel, if you read aloud) the repeated, fulsome dropping of the throat muscles. While this example may be overdone, I think it illustrates the point.

How about this instead:

The shy child shuffled her feet.

With “shy” and “shuffle” working in tandem, alliteration draws the reader’s attention to the soft gliding of the “sh-” sound, and to the onomatopoeic effect that’s heightened in the sound’s redoubling.

Onomatopoeia and “mouth-feel”

You might have guessed from the examples above: I like onomatopoeia. It makes my heart thump and my toes tingle. I can’t get over how it manages to transcend the adage “show, don’t tell” by simultaneously doing both–by performing its own linguistic content. A good, albeit common, example is “whisper.” There are other choices that get at the same effect: “susurrate” or simply “speak softly.” But I’d argue you’re working at cross purposes if, in describing murmurs, you choose instead to use the sharp angles and hard consonants of “talking quietly.”

Another, related quality is something I like to call “mouth-feel.” It’s a term borrowed from the culinary world, but I think it serves nicely as a writing concept. For an illustration, imagine you’re describing a piece of a broken plate. You could call it a “fragment,” which, to my mind, places emphasis on angularity (I chalk the effect up to the strongly opposed stresses on the two syllables). You could use “shard,” which foregrounds sharpness (in the same way that Schick is an evocative name for a razor). Of course, you could use “portion” or “piece.” Either of those would be accurate, but I personally find them ill-suited, as they feel significantly softer. Consider the qualities you wish to highlight, and choose a word that fits–a word that feels right.

Scansion, syllables, and stresses

I wouldn’t advocate for using formal meter extensively, or rigidly, in prose. But I do find it useful, when applied sparingly, in matching the cadence of a sentence to the activity it describes. Consider an example:

The little dog cavorted down the hill.

This is good old iambic pentameter. It’s bouncy: you can feel yourself rollicking along. If you chose instead, “The small dog frolicked down the hillside,” the basic meaning of the words would be retained but the effect would be lost. Here’s another:

The old woman tip-toed along the care-worn garden path.

In this sentence, the stresses are irregular and frequently opposed, which gives the line a mincing, hesitant feel–almost forcing the reader herself to tiptoe through it. Again, choosing words with different stresses or syllable counts would alter the effect, if not the basic meaning.

Considering diction

Perhaps most important of all, context is key. I find it helpful to consider not just who is speaking, but to whom, and when, and for what purpose. Some questions I ask myself:

      • Does the occasion call for a flashier word (like “syncopation”) or something more understated (like “rhythm”)?
      • Is the speaker steeped in, or an authority on, a certain subject? Maybe there’s reason to use medical terminology or industry jargon.

What is the time period? If it’s not contemporary, it’s probably wise to avoid slang and modern vernacular. I realize this advice, to be mindful of time period and modes of speech, may seem to some too obvious to mention, but I’m mentioning it anyway so as not to be held responsible when someone, somewhere, writes a piece of historical fiction that contains a line of dialogue such as “Verily, bro, I shall join you anon.” Or, “Prithee, what is, like, her problem?”

If you know who’s speaking and why, you can be more intentional about how that person speaks, and more successful in capturing and conveying nuances of character.

And finally

I’ll close with a disclaimer: This list is by no means exhaustive, or authoritative. These are simply some things I think about while writing. I’d be glad to hear, by way of the comments section below, what factors others consider when trying to choose the right word–when attempting to bottle lightning, rather than just catching bugs.

Souvenirs and Other Stories | Matt Tompkins | Conium Review | SBN 978-1942387060 | June, 2016 | 79 pages

Souvenirs and Other Stories | Matt Tompkins | Conium Review | SBN 978-1942387060 | June, 2016 | 79 pages

Online Editor’s Note: You can read Matt Tompkins’ in Little Patuxent Review’s Summer 2015 unthemed issue. In addition to Souvenirs and Other Stories, he authored Studies in Hybrid Morphology (tNY Press, 2016). Matt’s stories have also appeared in New Haven Review, Post Road, and other journals. 

LPR’s fiction editor, Jen Grow says “In Souvenirs and Other Stories, Matt Tompkins creates a compelling universe that normalizes the bizarre . . . Souvenirs is thoroughly entertaining, a smart and funny collection from a wildly imaginative writer.”

You can follow Matt Tompkins on Tumbler: http://needsrevision.com/.

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