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lightning bug words in memoir

Lightning Bug Words

Are You Using Lightning Bug Words?

A lightning bug is a small, friendly flicker in our backyards, not enough light to illuminate even the smallest corner. On the other hand, lightning dazzles the eye. The sky is split open. Sometimes it makes our hair stand on end. In this piece, we look at the difference between lightning words and lightning bug words.

The difference between the right word and the almost right word is the difference between lightning and the lightning bug.”  — Mark Twain

Mark Twain uses the lightning/lightning bug comparison to talk about the importance of finding the right word at the right time in our writing. The right word will illuminate our writing. It will stand the reader’s hair on end. The almost-right word has no heat, no real power. It glows safely and dimly.

How can we know when we have the right word?

Do we wait for our own hair to stand on end, or the sky to split open? How do we write in lightning and not in lightning bugs? The right word is rarely the one you pluck from a dictionary or thesaurus because it sounds good. Use these books to find the precise word you need, not a fancy one. One mark of an insecure writer is overuse of so-called $10 words. If you need a dictionary to understand a word, chances are your readers will, too, and they will not love you for it.

This is not to say that writers shouldn’t cultivate a rich vocabulary. Words are your raw material, just as your memories are. The more you have of each, the better your memoir writing will be. The trick is knowing how to use those words. To find the right word, use your imagination. Place yourself in the scene you are writing. Discard any adjectives or adverbs that occur to you. Concentrate on nouns and verbs.

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What comes to mind? Now ratchet your thoughts up a notch. What comes to mind now? Then do it again. For example, suppose you are recalling something that happened at a Fourth of July celebration. You might at first think, “The fireworks sparkled overhead.” Perfectly serviceable. Now ratchet it up a notch. “Fireworks exploded around me.” Better. Try again. “Fireworks crackled in the sky.” Ah. Now we’re getting somewhere. We expect fireworks to sparkle and explode, but the crackling sound they make is usually ignored.

Going From Lightning Bug Words to Lightning Words

Word choices help you establish character and setting. When you write, examine the verbs and nouns to see if they can be ratcheted up a notch without using $10 words. Choose words that illuminate and inform without overwhelming the sentence. For instance, what if we tried to ratchet our example up another notch? “Fireworks pirouetted through the sky.” Hmm, nice $10 (lightning bug) word. But nowhere near as exciting as “crackled.”

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