Words That Punch Above Their Weight

If I had to pick a favourite word, it would have to be whoops. It’s so universal, so expressive and everyone can read whatever they imagine into that one word. It’s a word that punches above its weight.

I first noticed the power of whoops when it made newspaper headlines in 2000, the year Sydney hosted the Olympics. Early that year, during the selection trials for the Australian swimming team, the unthinkable happened. In the 800m freestyle, Australia’s swimming hero Ian Thorpe made a disastrous break before the starter gun and was disqualified. He was world champion for the 800m and had won gold for that event in the previous Olympics. So the photograph of him tumbling towards the water as his feet left the blocks made the front page of every newspaper in the country. In one national newspaper, beneath that photograph was a one-word headline: Whoops! Most people still easily recall seeing that photograph with its single word in large print, even though more than a decade has passed since.

Whoops! meant so many things in the minds of Australians who saw it. It said: well, we didn’t see that coming or perhaps oh dear, there goes gold for Australia or even never mind, Ian, we all make mistakes. It might also have expressed what was going through Ian Thorpe’s mind at the time, like: what was I thinking? or please don’t let this count against me.

Whoops! said it all and more.

When I’m writing, I constantly search for words that punch above their weight, words that have more than one meaning or words that imply something deeper. Even when I’m not writing, I take note of interesting or powerful words I read or hear. Not big words because I’m not a fan of big words, just simple words that work really well for the space they take up.

One of my stories is called Xiao’s Patch and I chose the word patch because it has multiple layers of meaning. The story is about a homeless man, so the word patch refers to the small stretch of street where he lives. Patch also means a scrap of something or something to cover up a hole or something make-do, all of which convey a sense of poverty. Patch is also used in a competitive sense, as in your patch versus my patch. As events unfold, Xiao’s spot comes under threat from another homeless man whose size and belligerence are more than Xiao can face. I could have called the story Xiao’s Home or Xiao’s Street or Xiao’s Struggle but none of those words pack as much punch as the word patch.

Many writers settle for too little when choosing words. There’s an old adage: “Don’t say a bird, say a robin.” I think it’s better to paint a bigger, more detailed picture in the reader’s mind by being specific rather than generic.

So instead of using the word shoes, try  joggers, brogues, sneakers, stilettos or Nikes and let the shoes reveal something about the character. If you write he looked down at his shoes it just conveys a simple action, but if you write he looked down at his sneakers it conveys something about the character along with the action.

Verbs are often neglected when it comes to finding something with more punch. Instead of using the word put, try slipped, eased, shoved, crammed. If you write she put the letter in her pocket it’s just another simple action, but if you write she shoved the letter in her pocket there’s an added layer of meaning about how she feels about the letter.

Any added meaning within a single word is very satisfying to the reader because it enlarges the picture in the reader’s mind and it often raises questions for the reader to mull over.

One author who does this to an amazing degree is Tim Winton. He rarely uses complex words, instead he finds simple words that punch way above their weight. In one of his short stories in The Turning, he has a scene in which two brothers are surfing when a shark moves in. One of the brothers is taken by the shark and his surfboard tombstones out of the water. That word tombstones creates a very accurate picture of what a board looks like when it’s upended and shoots up out of the water, minus the surfer. On top of that, the use of tombstones conveys a sense of death without having to spell out the possibility the surfer might die. The whole story has an underlying theme of death, so it’s even more powerful in reiterating the idea behind the story. One word, many layers. Bravo Tim Winton!

When I find a word that punches above its weight, I use it sparingly. In my story Xiao’s Patch, the word patch only appears in the title and twice in the text. That’s because a powerful word sticks in the reader’s mind and any overuse would reduce its effectiveness. It’s like a little splash of red that catches your eye in a painting full of yellows and blues. It’s the little that stands out a lot. Too many red splashes and the effect is ruined.

Some words become overused, especially in the media, and begin to punch well below their weight. I avoid those. I won’t use delicious unless it has something to do with eating and I won’t call anything sexy if it doesn’t have genitals. And I definitely don’t describe a raft of anything unless it’s floating on water. When a word is overused, it loses its power and only serves as padding in the story. That’s just irritating for the reader.

I’m forever jotting down words that catch my ear or eye. I might not use them straight away but I like to collect simple words that punch above their weight. I like to let them float around in my head, waiting for the right spot in a story where they will sit comfortably, more than earning their worth.

So, what’s it called?

Naming a new puppy would’ve been easier. It didn’t even take me that long to come up with names for my children. But it’s taken me nearly five months to come up with a title for my blog. You’d think, being a writer, it wouldn’t be that hard. But titles are so important and they can be really difficult to nail. The title of a story or book or blog is the first thing the reader sees and it needs to shout “Oi! Over here, listen to this, here’s something worth reading!” A well-crafted title can be the difference between a reader turning the cover and having a peek inside or putting the book down and walking away.

A friend was really surprised recently when I said I had half a dozen potential titles for one of my novels undergoing yet another draft. She said, “Isn’t the title the first thing you write?” Well it might be the first thing you write but it might also be the last thing you write. Sounds strange, I know, but writers are like that. Strange.

When I start a story, I usually have a title but it’s never set in concrete. It’s just a handy compass to help me keep track of where I’m heading with the story. If the story starts to ramble or a character starts to head off in some unproductive direction, I can use the title to check I’m still telling the story I started.

The title and the opening of a story make a promise to the reader, a promise to tell a story about something that happened to someone. If the writer veers off track and starts telling all sorts of irrelevant side-stories or if the writer changes horses midstream and starts telling the story of a different main character, then the reader starts to wonder what the story is really about. If the writer doesn’t fulfill the promise of the opening, the reader is justified in feeling cheated enough to toss the story aside and walk away.

I’ve just finished reading the memoir The Inconvenient Child by Sharyn Killens and Lindsay Lewis. Apart from being a well-told story revealing some of the tragic realities of children’s institutions in Australia before 1980, I was very impressed with the title. It hits dead-centre at the heart of the story and the writers never veer from what they’ve promised right from the start. The title tells the reader who the story is about and it encapsulates the conflict – a child who was not wanted because of the inconvenience of her skin colour in a conservative white society. The story tells of the girl’s life-long search to find out where she belongs, to find the family that will accept her for who she is rather than reject her for the colour of her skin. By the end of the book, the title has borne out its promise and I found the story really worth taking the time to read.

As well as being appropriate to the story, The Inconvenient Child is a great title for grabbing a reader’s attention. The second I saw that title in a review, it had me thinking. I wanted to know how something as precious and vulnerable as a child might come to be regarded as inconvenient. I wanted to know what happened to that child, whether she ever found a place to belong. So, as far as titles are concerned, this one ticked all the boxes for me.

Sometimes, a good title just pops into my head and that’s a real gift. Often, though, it can take a lot of hard thinking and playing around with words before I’m happy to put it at the top of the story. Because a title is so important, even if I think my working title is good, I always revisit it once a story is finished. The reader is my first consideration so I always ask myself: will this title attract someone’s eye, will it raise a reader’s curiosity, will it say here’s a story worth reading? My second consideration is to check the title encapsulates the heart of the story, especially the main character and the core conflict. When a reader spots my title, I want it to be the crumb that reveals the flavour of the whole cake and I want the reader to be hungry for a bigger bite.

When readers finish the last page, close the book and put it down, usually the last thing they see is the title. For every story I write, I hope readers will see that title and say, “Right, now I get what this story is about.” And I hope the title helps them remember that story just a little longer.