Pack Every Word With Power

by Gary Provost (*See Editor’s Note Below.)

The well-chosen word—one that is honest, active, specific and appropriate—gives your manuscript the power to entrance readers. Editors, too. You are a hypnotist. Yes, you are. If you are a writer, you are a hypnotist. Hypnosis, in my dictionary, is “an artificially induced sleeplike condition in which an individual is extremely responsive to suggestion.”

I can’t think of anyone more responsive to suggestion than the enthralled reader. A killer is in the closet, you say, and the reader’s heart starts racing. You hint that there is treasure on the island; the reader envisions the pieces of eight and prepares for adventure. There is no sign of a gun, not a whisper of danger, no battened and sea-crusted chest set before him. You convince the reader with no more than a collection of squiggly black lines on white paper. And those lines can be infinitely more effective than the shiniest gold watch swinging before the glazed eyes of the hypnotist’s subject.

The lines, of course, form units called words, which possess in varying degrees the power to hypnotize your readers, to convince them of your suggestions. Some words are absolutely mesmerizing. Some merely induce a mild trance. And some are so poorly chosen that they wenfronckmonkin jar the reader out of his trance.

Consider what just occurred in your brain when you came upon the word wenfronckmonkin. You were going along with my suggestions. You believed that you could hear me speaking to you. You had “forgotten” that you were reading. But my invented word wenfronckmonkin, an extreme example of choosing the wrong word, had no power to keep you hypnotized. For an instant, you “woke up” and realized that you were reading.

Certainly you don’t fill your prose with nonsense words that make bizarre noises in the reader’s head. But you might be using far too many of the words that have little of the power required to hold a reader’s attention. One word usually won’t shatter the spell you have cast over the reader, unless it is something absolutely inappropriate like wenfronckmonkin, or a word that is blatantly misspelled or contains a typographical error. But if you consistently use words with little power, your reader will never descend very deeply into the trance.

Throughout the reading process, he will remain aware that he is reading, and you will be in constant danger of losing him to the TV, that chore that’s been nagging him, or the article that begins on the next page of the magazine. (Keep in mind that long before that, your reader will be an editor and you could lose him to the next manuscript on his desk.)

So, after you have finished a draft of a story or article, strengthen it: rearrange sentences, shorten paragraphs, add dialogue, introduce another character, etc. But after you’ve done that, read through the manuscript again and cross out all the words that have little power to entrance a reader, and replace them with words that have the power. I’m going to give you some guidelines that will help you find words with power. But first, three points to remember.

    1. This article is about words, not sentences, so I am not offering here all the possible rules about finding words with power. These are guidelines to help you cross out old words and put in new ones without rearranging sentences. There are many ways of getting more power from a word by rewriting sentences and paragraphs, but that’s another article.
    2. These rules frequently overlap. Many words have two or more of the qualities generally associated with words of power. “Specific” words are usually more “dense.” “Short” words are usually more “familiar” and so forth. Also, there will be apparent contradictions. A word that has less power by one rule might have more power by another.
    3. While we can generalize about which words have power and which don’t, the ultimate test of a word’s power to hypnotize comes in the context of what you are writing and its relation to the words around it. Use these guidelines when you reread your manuscript, but test each change before you make it. Read the sentence out loud as it stands, then read it with the word changes you are considering. In time, you will develop a true ear for words with power and eventually you will find that the words of greater power come easily to you in the first draft.

Power Words Are Short

Obviously, this is a broad generalization and if you replace every word in your manuscript with the shortest possible substitution, you would end up with pretty dull prose. Nonetheless, a short word containing the same information as a longer word or a phrase is almost always more powerful. Rape is stronger than sexual assault. Mourn is stronger than lament. Stretch is stronger than extend, and rich is stronger than wealthy. “I can see her now in her yellow taffeta dress” is stronger than “I can envision her now in her yellow taffeta dress.” Very long words—five syllables or more—are almost always weak.

The fastest way to learn this lesson is to read anything by Ernest Hemingway. Hemingway, the Nobel prize winner who lands on almost everybody’s list of greatest American writers, was an absolute miser when it came to syllables. This paragraph, which I picked at random from his The Sun Also Rises, contains only two words with more than two syllables.

“Finally, after a couple more false klaxons, the bus started, and Robert Cohn waved good-by to us, and all the Basques waved good-by to him. As soon as we started out on the road outside of town it was cool. It felt nice riding high up and close under the trees. The bus went quite fast and made a good breeze, and as we went out along the road with the dust powdering the trees and down the hill, we had a fine view, back through the trees, of the town rising up from the bluff above the river. The Basque lying against my knees pointed out the view with the neck of a wine-bottle, and winked at us. He nodded his head.”

Replace the underlined words in the following sentences with words that are shorter and more powerful. Hemingway would have.

    • I discovered what I was looking for.
    • The drunk collapsed into the gutter.
    • Waldo knew that the commonwealth would make him pay for his crimes.

The words I had in mind? found, fell and state. These words are simpler and short, and they hold the reader.

Power Words Are Specific

    • A man has just entered the room in which I am writing this article.
    • A priest has just entered the room in which I am writing this article.

Did you find you were more interested, leaned a little closer, when I told you the man was a priest? That’s because he became more specific, more interesting, and you could see him better. If I’d have told you a midget, a monk or a thief had entered the room, you would still have found him more interesting than just “a man.”

A cobra has more power than a snake. Gossip, prattle and chat all have more power than talk.

The specific word usually has more power. In fact, I recently bought a book because of a specific word. The book is The Last Good Kiss, by James Crumley, and I plunked down $12.75 for it after reading only Crumley’s opening sentence:

“When I finally caught up with Abraham Trahearne, he was drinking beer with an alcoholic bulldog named Fireball Roberts in a ramshackle joint outside of Sonoma, California, drinking the heart right out of a fine spring afternoon.”

That’s a wonderful lead, but if Trahearne had been drinking with an alcoholic dog instead of an alcoholic bulldog, I might not have bought the book. For me, that specific word, bulldog, brought into focus not just the dog, but also the bar, the beer and the fine spring afternoon. Why? Because by telling me what kind of dog it was, the author convinced me that he must have been there to see it. How else would he know it was a bulldog? He increased the power of his suggestion.

A warning. When you reread your manuscript, don’t arbitrarily make words more specific. Choose carefully. When you make a word specific, the reader assumes you are trying to tell him something. If your character is driving a car down the highway and you change it to a Jaguar, you gain power, but you also further characterize the driver. You create connotations of money, speed, charm, etc. Make sure you choose a car that is consistent with all the other messages you are trying to send the reader. (Reread Crumley’s opening sentence and see what happens when you change bulldog to Doberman.)

Power Words Are Honest

In our daily dealings with people, we often remove power from our words so as not to offend, shock, or inspire violence. In writing, this is not necessary. The honest word usually has more power than the euphemism. “Your brother died last night” is stronger than “Your brother passed away,” or “expired.” In real life, I might tell Jennie that her child is “undisciplined,” but in my memoirs I’ll write that the kid was “a brat.” When the clothing store clerk shows me a shirt, I tell him it’s “not quite what I had in mind,” but when I write about it, I write, “the shirt was ugly.”

Power Words Are Appropriate

I said earlier that you must consider the context before you start changing words, because a word that is shorter or more specific or more honest won’t have more power if it sounds inappropriate. Choose words that are consistent with the mood of your writing.

Six years ago, when I was hired by a large Roman Catholic church to write a booklet for its centennial celebration, I included a section about one of the church’s outreach programs: a drop-in counseling center. “Among the center’s clients,” I wrote, “are prostitutes, alcoholics and drug addicts, who come not for a sermon, but for help.” That same year in a mystery story, “The Eight Thou,” published in Anthology, I wrote about the same types of people, but I wrote, “Randy waited on a cold stone bench, in a long line of hookers, winos and junkies.” The words in my story were shorter and generally more powerful, but because they have pejorative connotations, they would have been inappropriate for my church booklet. I would have lost power because the words would have clashed with the tone of what I was writing.

Power Words Are Active

Readers are held close to the page by words of action and motion, words that “do something.” Go through your manuscript and exchange active words for those passive ones that merely exist. For example, replace a passive compound verb like was driving with the active verb, drove. Change “Sen. Craig is planning to run in 1994,” to “Sen. Craig plans to run in 1994.” Change “A three-month-old baby is crying to get attention,” to “A three-month-old baby cries to get attention.”

You will also gain more power over your reader if you change verbs of being, such as is, was or will be, to verbs of activity. You can make the reader believe more in your static description if you give objects something to do. If you have written, “A grandfather clock was in one corner, three books were on the table, and the smell of cigar smoke was in the air,” get your pencil. Give those inanimate objects work to do. Write something like, “A grandfather clock towered in one corner, three books lay on the table, and the smell of cigar smoke filled the air.”

Do the same thing with these sentences, replacing words I have italicized.

    • Sixty thousand people are in the stadium every Sunday.
    • A little boy was at the end of the line.
    • As I enter the police station a burly sergeant is behind the front desk, three rookies are around the water cooler talking shop, ignoring the convicted felon who is near the open window at the back of the room.

Here are some ways you might have gained power in those sentences.

    • Sixty thousand people fill (or jam or crowd) the stadium every Sunday.
    • A little boy stood (or waited or lingered) at the end of the line.
    • As I enter the police station a burly sergeant stands (looms, waits) behind the front desk, three rookies loiter (gather, hang) around the water cooler talking shop, ignoring the convicted felon who hovers (edges, moves) near the open window at the back of the room.

Power Words Are Dense

The reason a punch in the face hurts so much is that the attacker has channeled all his strength into a small area—i.e., his fist. It has impact. It is crowded with power. It is dense. The same goes for words. As you crowd more meaning into a small space, you gain power. Watch for opportunities to cross out four words and put in one. Change “In the event of rain” to “If there’s rain.” Change “On the occasion of your anniversary”, to “On your anniversary.”

One of my favorite words is arguably, not because it is so pretty, but because it is dense. All the other ways of saying the same thing require more words: “It can be argued that,” “According to some people,” etc.

Here I have rewritten slightly the first two paragraphs of Bob Greene’s article “King of the Wild Frontier,” which appeared in the March 1982 issue of Esquire. I’ve inserted and italicized some phrases that could have appeared in one of Green’s early drafts.

“In the middle of the 1950’s when television was just passing the stage of being something new in American homes something important happened.”

People had already become used to the idea of the TV set introducing people they didn’t know to them. What had been impossible to imagine only a few years before—the concept of moving pictures appearing in one’s own home, inside an electronic box—was on its way to becoming something that would be seen everywhere.

If Greene did write a draft that looked like that, he ended up replacing those phrases with words of greater density and power. Something new became a novelty. Instead of people they didn’t know, he wrote strangers. Impossible to imagine became inconceivable and something that would be seen everywhere is simply commonplace.

To gain the power that comes with density, find adjectives and adverbs that can easily be compressed into the nouns and verbs they accompany. Take the power of mean person and crowd it into bully. Reduce wrote rapidly to scribbled. Spoke quietly could be mumbled, and kissed lightly could be pecked. (Watch for those “ly” adverbs, which often offer a good chance to squeeze more meaning into the verb.)

Power Words Are Familiar

Do you know what a mandible is? Your dentist does. He uses that word every day. So if you are writing a story just for your dentist, use mandible. But if you are writing for everybody else, use the more familiar word, jaw. A word that your reader doesn’t recognize has no power at all. If it confuses him or sends him scurrying for the dictionary, it has broken the spell, reminded him that he is reading. Familiar words have power. By avoiding very long words, you avoid most of the words that your reader doesn’t know. But you should also replace words that are short, but rare. Even though delegate is longer, it is better than depute. Don’t write sclerous if you can write hardened, and if you’ve written that something is virescent, please go back and say that it was turning green.

Also avoid foreign phrases and professional jargon unless you’re certain that the unfamiliar words are doing some important work in the sentence.

Power Words Are Unexpected

While your reader should certainly recognize a word, he shouldn’t feel as if the word has been following him around town all day. Any word that occurs several times in one paragraph should be replaced in some instances, or it will lose power from overuse. Many short, common words do great work for us, but have become a bit boring and need from time to time to be put on the bench in favor of more powerful substitutes. Instead of being wet all the time, perhaps a piece of clothing can be moist or damp. These are simple, common words, but they are a little bit more interesting, a little bit surprising and more powerful. Instead of having your heroine smile all the time, perhaps she can grin, smirk, or beam. I recently used the word robbery so frequently in an article that I was sick of hearing it; I crossed it out a few times and inserted heist, caper and holdup. Those are all short, familiar words, but they are a little bit unexpected:

Here is an excerpt from Crazy Boy, a young adult novel I’ve just completed. See if you can replace the common and somewhat predictable words, which I have italicized, with words that are familiar, yet more powerful because they are not quite what the reader expected:

“Jeremy could not understand why at a moment like this it all shone so clearly in his mind. And yet at other times his hopeful view of the future would break into a hundred jagged pieces, like a mirror falling to the floor, and the pieces would melt into a muddle of vague yearnings, suspicions, and the certainty of failure. Now he stood by the window three floors above the city and tried to move his mind back to that mysterious maze of disorganized thought that sometimes plagued him. And though he couldn’t quite get there, he did remember some of the feelings. And he remembered also that the pieces of his dreams didn’t always melt away; sometimes they stayed as they were, and he melted.”

When I rewrote this paragraph, I changed shone to glowed, view to vision, falling to crashing, pieces to fragments, move to steer, plagued to tortured, and pieces again to fragments.

Eight Rules

Finally, remember that having these eight rules to follow is not like having a spare tire in the trunk. There is no guarantee that the new word will work better than the old. Power words do not exist in a vacuum, and swapping a word for one of greater power is no bargain if the new word repeals some other work you have done in the sentence. If your suave and romantic hero takes his dream girl into a classy restaurant and orders snails instead of escargot, you will have inserted a word that is shorter, more familiar, and certainly unexpected. But the sentence will lose some power, and for an instant the reader will lose his belief that everything you tell him is true. And, for that matter, the hero will probably lose the girl.


Copyright 1985 Gary Provost. All Rights Reserved. Reprinted with Permission.

* Editor’s Note by Bill Frank: Gary Provost is known as “The writer’s writer,” and is beloved in the publishing world. I spoke with him in person for permission to use this article, and was fortunate to meet Gary. He died in 1995.

Thousands of his articles, columns, humor, and celebrity profiles were published in newspapers and magazines around the country. He wrote for Writer’s Digest magazine, the world’s leading trade journal for writers. That’s where I discovered “Pack Every Word With Power.”

Gary sold 22 fiction and nonfiction books to major publishing houses. He spoke at writing conferences, and conducted WRITE IT/SELL IT weekend seminars, and ten-day WRITERS RETREAT WORKSHOPS.

I seldom ever, no wait a minute, I never write something without referencing the tips in “Pack Every Word With Power.”

As a student of writing, I’ve read a lot of how-to books from luminaries like E.B. White, Stephen King, Lynne Truss, John McPhee, and Julia Cameron. In my view, Gary Provost is the best there is.