When we set the first words on a blank page, our minds begin forming images, scenes we want to describe. In his book, The Language Instinct, Steven Pinker notes that we are not born with language, so we are NOT engineered to think in words alone—we also think in images.
It follows that certain words become a kind of mental shorthand, small packets of letters that contain a world of images and meaning for us. These words will be used with frequency in the first draft as they are efficient. We write as fast as we can when we are in the mood, and these words are a speedy way to convey a wide range of information.
Because we use them, we can get the first draft of a story written from beginning to end before we lose the fire for it.
One code word that slips into my first draft prose is the word “got.”
It is a word that serves numerous purposes and conveys so many images. “Got” is on my global search list of “telling words.” The words in the list are signals to me, indications that a scene needs to be reworded to make it a “showing” scene.
“Got:” He got the message = comprehension. He understood.
Some other instances where we use “got” as a code word for our second draft:
- He got the dog into the car.
- He got the mail.
- He got
Code words are the author’s multi-tool—a compact tool that combines several individual functions in a single unit. One word, one packet of letters serves many purposes and conveys a myriad of mental images.
Every author thinks a little differently, so your code words will be different from mine. One way to find your secret code words is to have the Read Aloud tool read each section. I find most of my inadvertent crutch words that way.
Another code word on my personal list is “felt.” Let’s go to Merriam-Webster’s Online Thesaurus:
Words Related to felt:
It’s natural to overuse certain words without realizing it, but that is where revisions come in. Anytime I’m working on showing interactions between characters, certain words will be hauled into play over and over.
As you go along, you’ll discover that some words have very few synonyms that work.
Consider the word “smile.” It’s a common code word, a five-letter packet of visualization. Synonyms for “smile” are few and usually don’t show what I mean:
When I come across the word “smile” in my work, it sometimes requires a complete re-visualization of the scene. I look for a different way to convey my intention, which can be a frustrating job.
Our characters’ facial expressions display happiness, anger, spite, and all the other emotions. Their eyebrows raise or draw together; foreheads crease and eyes twinkle; shoulders slump, and hands tremble.
I refuse to drag the reader through a long list of ever-moving facial expressions, lips turning up, down, drawing to one side, etc., but sometimes the brief image of a smile is what you need.
When done sparingly and combined with a conversation, this can work.
But… by sparingly, I mean no more than one facial change per interaction, please. Nothing is more boring than reading a story where a person’s facial expressions take center stage. We must be more concerned with what is happening inside our characters than about the melodramatic outward display.
When you discover one of your first draft code words, go to the thesaurus and find all the synonyms you can and list them in a document for easy access. If it is a word like smile or shrug, you have your work cut out, but consider making a small list of visuals.
Think about the expressions and body language an onlooker would see if a character were angry.
- Crossed arms.
- A stiff posture.
- Narrowed eyes.
Literary agent Donald Maas has good advice in his book, the Emotional Craft of Fiction.
If you don’t have it already, another book you might want to invest in is The Emotion Thesaurus by Angela Ackerman and Becca Puglisi. Some of the visuals they list aren’t my cup of tea, but they do have a grip on how to show what people are thinking.
This aspect of the revision process is sometimes the most difficult. It takes time when we look at each instance of our code words. They don’t always need changing—sometimes, a smile is a smile and that is okay.
Credits and Attributions:
Wikimedia Commons contributors, “File:Victorinox Multitool.jpg,” Wikimedia Commons, the free media repository, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?title=File:Victorinox_Multitool.jpg&oldid=484117422 (accessed February 14, 2021).