As a writer you can choose the most accurate words. But then the exact shade of meaning such words have for you could be missing in the mind of your readers. In fact, reading is an interactive process.
As a result, as paradoxical as it might look at first blush, the most subtle and precise the meaning you try to convey is, the most difficult it is to convey it effectively.
How to up the ante
Just consider a verb as common as open. Even the mere act of opening something as banal as a door can present many different nuances. To express them we can use adverbs, or contextual factors, or both of them.
- Lydia opened the door and welcomed the guests. They brought bottles of wine and bunches of flowers. And smiled. So she smiled back to them.
- Lydia opened the door and welcomed the guests. They brought bottles of wine and bunches of flowers. And they all smiled reassuringly. So she smiled back to them and relaxed.
- Lydia dried her hands on her skirt, then she gingerly opened the door and welcomed the newcomers. They brought bottles of wine and bunches of flowers. And they all smiled reassuringly. So she smiled back to them and relaxed a little.
If you spend time describing the action of Lydia opening the door in example 1–even if only to add in gingerly you’d better have a very good reason for doing so.
For example, Lydia might liken the opening of the door to an important psychological moment for her. Maybe a new beginning. Or maybe she might feel she has to pass an unspoken sort of test. A test the guests will subject her to.
In short, if the passage only serves as a transition, as an intro to a scene, example 1 is what we should aim to. Otherwise we can, and should, add in details to make sure our readers immediately realize the opening of the door is an important moment.
In the above examples we can say context helps readers to understand a lot about how to better interpret the verb.
But words are not always so easy to place and understand. And that’s when the shit really menaces to hit the fan.
For example, adjectives as self-confident, self-reliant, and self-possessed can all be used more or less to express the same idea.
In fact, if we head over to the Oxford Dictionary and look self-confident up, we get this series of synonyms: self-assured, confident, believing in oneself, positive, assertive, assured, authoritative, commanding, self-reliant, self-possessed, composed, poised.
- Self confident: Trusting in one’s abilities, qualities, and judgment.
- Self-reliant: Reliant on one’s own powers and resources rather than those of others.
- Self possessed: Calm, confident, and in control of one’s feelings; composed.
However, looking at the definitions of some of these synonyms it’s easy to notice that:
1) Self-confident doesn’t necessarily entails being calm.
2) Self-reliant stresses an opposing relationship between who is self-reliant and all the others.
3) Self-possessed seems to stress one’s control over their feelings.
In many cases these differences can be of little import. But if for a character you use a very succinct description, for example: He was a self-possessed middle aged man. And then you show that same character being anything but calm, for your readers the flow of reading can come to an abrupt halt.
Of course, also the opposite can happen. That’s to say you use the right words, but then you rely on a shade of their meaning that only a minority of readers immediately associates with them.
In any case the flow stops. And this is what matters.
Meaning and length
This is why it’s always better to embed in your writing a small but necessary degree of repetition, of redundancy. To make sure your intended meaning comes across as clear as possible. That’s should be your priority. Not necessarily making your work as short as possible.
That’s also why when a piece of prose is way too terse it ends up feeling a bit distant and unemotional. You know, it says all it needs to say. Yet, it also seems a bit too aseptic.
Some writers tend to repeat what they have to say over and over again. For example using four similes, or metaphors, or any other literary device when one or two would do. Unfortunately, this tactic is just as unsatisfying. To start with, it can feel patronizing. In addition, it is also frustrating because it forces the story to move at a glacial pace.
That’s why writing can be quite challenging at times. But as a writer you have to balance on that sort of a tightrope hanging between a desolated desert and a crazy night in Las Vegas.
And you have to do this not just once. But for every book. For every story.
With your words you have to build a sieve whose mesh keeps the meaning from escaping through the holes, and yet it is so well designed to go unnoticed by your readers.
For more bout how to choose the right word: Power Vocabulary