The Art of Choosing Words Carefully–Contest

At one time, scientists believed that the human taste scale could only distinguish four flavors–salty, sweet, bitter and sour–and that from that minimalist scale you could distinguish pizza from pasta, ice cream from lemons.

Today, they are claiming we have a wider range, perhaps as many as 20 or more to help us form our gourmet appetites, create our magazines full of new recipes each month, or go into the Top Chef Restaurant Wars. How can this be?

Heart Hands - Few digits-infinite message

Few digits-infinite message

Like flavors, the romance language speaker has a limit of 26 letters to work with in communicating all levels of emotion, imagery, conflict, and information.  Yet for centuries we’ve done just that.  Do you have a favorite letter?  How ’bout a favorite word?

I love words.  Wouldn’t be a writer, I guess, if I didn’t.  When I write I don’t mind the editing process because there is always a word or two to look up and play with.

When my nieces and nephews graduated from high school, I used to buy them Webster’s Collegiate Dictionaries as part of their graduation presents.  This was, of course, in the days before personal computer ubiquity, and tablets, and smart phones, and whatever the next generation of incredibly powerful yet minute size computing will exist.  But a good dictionary is important to have and to play with.  Even for this blog post I’ve looked up a few words already.

Here’s my point.  Precision in word choice is both a game and an important part of story-telling.  Connie Willis gave a talk at an RMFW Colorado Gold writing conference a few years ago where she talked about an author who wrote a story about a submarine adventure in World War II.  She quoted the story dialogue–“Dive! Dive!” said the captain into the thingy.”  We in the audience roared our appreciation.  We got it. Not that “thingy” isn’t a perfectly fun word to use, but this example shows the importance of precise word choice.

This week, I came across a very good writing prompt, in Story Engineering, the book I told you about a few weeks ago.  Larry Brooks works from the premise that people are driven by resentment.  He says, “We resist that which we resent,” and goes on for a few pages about how this resentment gives us motivation for revenge, and sets up some great story opportunities as a result.  Then Mr. Brooks asks his reader to try an exercise in resentment:

“Make a list of all the things in your life, both close and at arm’s length, that you resent. Then notice how that resentment influences your attitudes, behaviors, and decisions toward people or things. Pay attention to how each entry makes you feel. And then, in turn, how it may influence how you act.”

Can you write a story between two people who resent each other?  Will the conflict they act on be a mountain or a mole hill that represents years of resentment?

Here’s where word choice comes into play.  Mr. Brooks used the word “resent.”  He could just as easily have said, “begrudge,” or “hate,” or “loathe.”  But the word “resent” was his choice, and the part in the dictionary written in parenthesis is what made the lightbulb come on for me:

“resent: to be angry or upset about (someone or something that you think is unfair).”
Thanks to Merriam-Webster Dictionary for this definition.

The second I saw the word “unfair,” all the feelings from preschool on where I felt angry and victimized came forward.  I might easily have stumbled in this writing exercise if I hadn’t had a precise definition for the word, “resent.”

And now for the contest part . . .

Here’s an idea.  Why don’t you do the writing exercise Mr. Brooks suggests, then write a short story (800 words or less) to send to me?  I”ll try to select a story to publish on this blog with the “winner’s” byline, and send a press release about the contest and your story to a few publishing contacts. You never know.  You might be the next Ogden Nash.

Okay, so every contest has rules, and here they are:

  • Be original–no copying from somebody else’s stuff
  • Be brief–absolutely no more than 800 words (title excluded)
  • Be broke–sorry, I don’t have any give away items or money for this contest
  • Be on time–Deadline is June 9, 5:00 pm mountain time.
  • Be resentful–No, you don’t have to use the word “resent,” but it must show in the story. Choose your words carefully.
  • Be happy–this isn’t a big contest with awards, fame and fortune.  We’re just doing a writing exercise together.  Have fun with it.

Good luck with this.  Have a wonderful writing week.



8 thoughts on “The Art of Choosing Words Carefully–Contest

    • Yep. I think you’re right on that–the scientists had it wrong to not include “officially bland” in the taste spectrum. Hope you’ll write the story in today’s contest. Larry Brooks saw it and said he’d be interested in commenting on the winning entry. Luanne, I can’t thank you enough for your loyal friendship here.

  1. Was linked here by Larry, and loved this post. people would say that my favorite word has four letters and starts with F, but that is just because it comes out of my mouth so frequently… luckily my writing isn’t plagued by profanity, only my speech.

    The MC of my story is driven by resentment. resentment of the demoness who claimed him as a cub, resentment of his older brother who always made him feel inadequate, resentment of his uncle who turned him away upon returning to the farm, and resentment of those too weak to stand up for themselves like he learned to. i’ve found that resentment is generally the trigger to our most passionate emotions, particularly when it comes to grudges and/or deeply driven needs for acceptance.

    i’ll have to see if i can draft something for the contest. sounds like a fun exercise…

    • Hi Tzalaran, Thanks for stopping by. I am so with you on the language slip ups. Even the threat of soap in the mouth when I was growing up did little to curb my bad habits–but that’s a secret between you and me. It sounds like you have a gripping tale in your resentment story. I wish you well, and hope you do enter the contest. I’ll give submission info in next week’s post.

    • Hi Curt,
      Thanks for asking! I’m working on this, but should have full instructions on Wednesday — I know I’ll ask that you submit via email with a Word doc or docx attached and that your document should not have your name on it, but the email needs to be set up.
      I’ll look forward to hearing from you, and thanks for visiting my site!

  2. I love this! I have been doing exercises that explore the range of human emotion. I have done love, anger, fear, now resentment. You are right in that it is so subtly pervasive in our lives and attitudes. I can have fun with this, now to keep it to 800 words . . . .

    • Hi Kate. Thanks for visiting my site! You’re way ahead of me on this. Great job doing all those exercises. I’m keeping the length to about the size of one of my posts for two reasons: 1) So I can publish the winner(s) and people can read the work in one quick sitting, and 2) Because a blog post of this length only takes me about an hour to complete (I always hated marathon homework assignments!). I hope you have fun. Looking forward to seeing your work. Please stop by Wednesday for submission guidelines.

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