Codewords and Mental Shorthand #amwriting

Many of us are in the revision process, working on the novels we wrote during November’s NaNoWriMo. These novels are disjointed and uneven, but they contain the essence of what can be a great book—with a lot of work.

depthPart1revisionsLIRF05252021On November 1st, when we began setting the first words on the blank page, our minds formed images, scenes we attempted 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.

For each author, certain words become a kind of mental shorthand, code words used with frequency in the first draft because they are efficient. Code words are small packets of letters that contain a world of images and meaning for us. These words help us get the story down more quickly when we are in the grip of creativity. Code 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.

I have mentioned before that one codeword I sometimes find in my first draft prose is the word “got.” It’s a word that my family used and is ingrained in my subconsciousness as a tool word.

It is a tool word because it serves numerous purposes and conveys many images with only three letters. “Got” is on my global search list of codewords. The words in the list are signals to me, indications that a scene needs to be reworded to express my true intent.

Got can signify understanding or comprehension, as in “she got it.” Some other instances where I might use “got” as a code word for my second draft:

  • He got the dog into the car. (put, placed)
  • He got the mail. (acquired)
  • He got (became) In an instance like this, an entire scene must be written, one I didn’t take the time to write during the rush of NaNoWriMo.

Codewords are the author’s multi-tool—a compact tool that combines several individual functions in a single unit. One little word, one small packet of letters serves many purposes and conveys a myriad of mental images.

Every author thinks differently, so your codewords will be different from mine. One way to find your secret codewords is to have the Read Aloud tool read each section. I find most of my inadvertent crutch words that way. When you hear them read aloud, they really stand out.

ozford-american-writers-thesaurusOnce you find them, you need to go to the thesaurus to find alternatives that better express your intent.

A first draft codeword high up my personal list is “felt.” Let’s go to Merriam-Webster’s Online Thesaurus:

  • Synonyms:
    • endured
    • experienced
    • knew
    • saw
    • suffered
    • tasted
    • underwent,
    • witnessed
  • Words Related to felt:
    • regarded
    • viewed
    • accepted
    • depended
    • trusted
    • assumed
    • presumed
    • presupposed
    • surmised

We all overuse certain words without realizing it. That is where revisions come in and is where writing takes effort. You’ll discover that some words have very few synonyms that work.

When you discover one of your first draft codewords, go to the thesaurus, 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.

Consider the word “smile.” It’s a common code word, a five-letter packet of visualization. We can use it to show happiness, but also it can suggest so many other moods and unspoken emotions.

Synonyms for the word smile are few and usually don’t show what I mean. When I find that word, it sometimes requires a complete revisualization of the scene. What am I really trying to convey with the word smile? I look for a different way to express my intention, which can be frustrating.

Facial expressions are only one of the many ways to display happiness, anger, spite, and other emotions. We shouldn’t rely only on a character’s face to show their moods.

Yes, their eyebrows raise or draw together, foreheads crease, and eyes sometimes twinkle. However, posture conveys a great deal. Shoulders sometimes slump, and hands often tremble. Sometimes characters refuse to look at the person they are speaking with.

Sometimes the brief image of a smile is the best expression to convey your intention.

Nothing is more off-putting than reading a story where a person’s facial expressions take center stage. As a reader, I’m more concerned with what is happening inside the characters than about the melodramatic outward display.

Think about the body language an onlooker would see if a character were angry.

  • Crossed arms.
  • A stiff posture.
  • Narrowed eyes.

A little list of those mood indicators can keep you from losing your momentum and will readily give you the words you need to show all the vivid imagery you see in your mind.

emotion-thesaurus-et-alIf you don’t have it already, a 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 know how to show what people are thinking.

The revision process is sometimes the most challenging aspect of writing because we are also looking at scene composition and framing (which was covered in my previous post). It takes time to revisualize each scene when we are also looking for codewords and rewriting entire paragraphs.

But codewords don’t always need changing—sometimes, a smile is a smile, and that is okay.


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