Jewel words are those beautiful words glistening inside a piece of larger text. Along with crux and flavor words, they serve your story and distinguish your writing voice.
Even in the best poems, certain words will stand head-and-shoulders above the rest. In “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner” they include grey-beard loon, kirk, emerald, swound, thunder-fit, witch’s oils, unslaked, betwixt, hulk, star-dogged, bemocked, hoary, crag, helmsman, blest, meadow-gale, and skiff-boat.
This is not to say jewel words are arcane or “fifty-cent” words, rather that, for the type of text you are crafting, they are words with extra descriptive power. They add meaning, information, emotion, or beauty.
Other jewels may jump out at you if you read the “Mariner.” That is the nature of jewels, they strike one as out of the ordinary.
Jewel words are few and far between compared to the heap of words that shore them up. Everyone talks about how writers have terrific vocabularies. It does help to have a stockpile of words at your disposal, but what truly matters is choosing the right words for your story.
Another very special set of words are the “crux” words of a story. These are the ten or so (a small number, as they are so central) words that go to its very heart. In Star Wars, the crux words include Jedi, lightsaber, and Death Star.
Every good story also has “flavor” words. These words are the add the spice. They are usually words that describe the setting or the local customs of the characters or any other details that make the story unique. In a book about the south, the word “y’all” could be a flavor word, while in the north it might be “you’s.”
Great writing is very much about how all the words fit together – jewel, crux, flavor, and everything in between.
Your words set the mood. They provide the register (more casual, more formal) and clues to the location, time, and traits of the people acting out your story. Your combination of words creates your all-important “voice.”
When you are writing, you are forming word clouds in the minds of readers. If a good number of your words are sad, the mood will be sad. If upbeat, the mood will be energetic. If these words appeared in a passage, how would they flavor the text? Green, mauve, beige, yellow, amber, chartreuse, purple, violet, red, emerald, rainbow. Certainly, something very colorful is going on.
Words take much of their meaning from context. “Call me Ishmael,” is perhaps one of the most famous lines in literature, but only because of the rest of the text of Moby Dick.
So, words must fit. You don’t call a sunrise “pitch black” or a racehorse “sloth-like” or have your Harvard professor suddenly start speaking in partial sentences with poor grammar — unless you have a very good reason. They can be red-flags or signals of import. Maybe the Harvard professor is an imposter or is the victim of an assassination attempt by fast-acting poison. Arrest her or get her to the hospital, pronto!
To get the right context you need the right definition. If you use a word incorrectly, it goes without saying it will jar. Commonly misused words abound, often because one word sounds like another. Here’s a list of malapropisms from school kids that explains history, like when, “In the Olympic Games, Greeks ran races, jumped, hurled the biscuits, and threw the java.”
Words can have denotations and also connotations. Often the connotations are what’s giving the real flavor to a sentence or passage of text. If you call a child “beautiful,” readers might be prone to thinking you are describing a she, while if you select “handsome,” readers will lean towards he. If you saw a bathroom with perfume, brushes, and lotions, you’ll think of a woman. A sink with a razor feels male. Of course, you can go against expectations in fascinating ways, just do it with a purpose.
You also need to nail your figurative meanings. If you write, “he’s a rock,” we expect he’s not literally a rock, but that he’s strong and reliable. If you write, “she’s a star,” we know she’s not a sun, but there’s something exceptional about her. When working with figurative language, it’s essential to get idioms correct. Some of the funniest utterances in any language are mixed metaphors, examples of which include: “You could have knocked me over with a fender,” “I wouldn’t eat that with a ten-foot pole,” and “Take a flying hike.”
Getting the right combination of words is about leaving out the wrong ones. Sometimes, it’s about sticking with the most simple and straightforward, like using the short Anglo-Saxon word in preference to longer and more formal (erudite) French and Latin cognates. Why perambulate when you can walk?
While there are vast lists of alternatives for the word “said,” most writing advice says to stick with said as a dialogue tag.
In general, sources of writing advice suggest staying away from adverbs unless they change the meaning of the verb they are qualifying in an unexpected way, as in “smiled sadly” or “wept joyfully.” Use a strong verb instead. Why “listen secretly” when you can eavesdrop?
It is also expected that you write to let readers experience what is happening to your characters. Distancing readers from the action using a range of verbs to show what characters are “feeling” (seeing, hearing, thinking, etc.) is called filtering. It’s the difference between “she felt the wind on her cheeks” and “the wind swept across her cheeks.”
Many times, the right words for your story will be specialist. You need enough of the right words for a particular subject to capture its essence, so you have to build a specific word toolbox to fit your particulars.
There is a sweet spot when it comes to deploying your vocabulary to best effect. You want to tap into rarely used words that are easily understood. Not overused, not too rare, but just right.
Where there exists no perfect word, you are expected to invent one. Shakespeare holds the record for introducing new words in English, but many other writers have successfully coined words. Thanks to Charles Dickens, we all know the word “Scrooge.”