In his 2000 craft book On Writing, Stephen King says,
Use the first word that comes to your mind in your vocabulary, if it is appropriate and colorful.
I talked about this issue a little yesterday when it comes to vocabulary in your fiction, but let’s dig a little deeper into this issue of word choice.
When you’re writing your fiction, you make hundreds and hundreds of word choices every day, oftentimes without realizing it. And that’s how you should be putting your first draft on the page. Without overthinking things, especially when it comes to the words you choose to put in any given scene.
Revisions down the road come in small shapes and big shapes. Sometimes you have to cut long chapters. Other times you have to re-write a sentence and give it a better word at the end. Yes, there will be times in revision when you have to start looking at specific words that may need changing.
But when you’re writing the first draft of your novel, Stephen King is absolutely right in that you should always, always, always pick the first word that comes to mind. Do not, under any circumstances, stop the process of writing to look up a word in the dictionary or thesaurus. If you’re really stuck on what the best word should be in the sentence, write the best one that comes to mind, and move on.
Trust me on this. When you come back to that sentence six weeks or three months or a year from now, whenever you begin the revising process, most likely a better word will enter your mind when you re-read the sentence. This happens to me often. I will get stuck in the first draft on a single word, but when I come back to that sentence months later, a much better one comes to mind. And that’s without looking in a dictionary.
Another reason not to hang up on a given word is tied to what I said before—odds are you will cutting that word, and sentence, in later revisions. I’ve cut more than 50,000 words in the past year from my MFA thesis novel. If I had paid close attention to each of these words, it probably would have taken me a decade just to finish the first draft.
One last reason not to panic about your word choice? Often the first word you come up with… is the best one! You can sit there for twenty minutes trying to think of something better, but more often than not, the first word you put down is actually the best of all, and you don’t need to go searching for something better.
Once you’re in the thick of revision, and especially when the book is shining its brightest and in you’re in the glorious stage of copyediting, then yes, do pay attention to your word choices. As you slowly read through your sentences, do change a word here and there if you think a better one would be suited.
But the process of the first draft is different. The first draft is about getting your story down on paper, nothing else. Use the first word that comes to mind, and move onto the next sentence.
You’ll be glad you did.