Within a moment, a girl approached the table, holding a huge birthday cake with twenty flickering candles on it. They illuminated/lit everything around them, like a cluster of stars in a night sky.

I can use both illuminated and lit in the example above. I think the meaning will be pretty much the same (both sound right to me.) So I decided to consider the length of the words. Is length something that has to be considered in cases like this? Or is not a very important factor in fiction writing?

  • 1
    You can use either word here, but personally I feel that illuminated suggests "reflected a glowing light" whereas lit could suggest "started fires."
    – Kit Z. Fox
    Sep 23 '13 at 17:01
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    1. “Within a moment” isn't a reasonable phrase. You might instead say “A moment later” or “Within seconds”, but to expressly say something happened in less than an instant (which is what “within a moment” says) doesn't make sense here. 2. Rather than holding a cake, say carrying a cake. Hold sort of implies closing one's hands about something, which for a “huge birthday cake” doesn't make sense. 3. While “a cluster of stars in a night sky” may shine brightly, they do not light up everything around them, so the candles/stars comparison doesn't make sense (but still may be effective). Sep 23 '13 at 17:04

Except when I'm writing tweets for Twitter, I never consider word length per se. But I often consider:

  • Rhythm -- How many syllables, which syllable is stressed, how those fit the surrounding sentence.
  • Sonority -- Hard and soft, consonants and vowels, lilt, how those fit the surrounding text.
  • Vocabulary -- Likelihood that the reader will grok the word without pause.
  • Concreteness -- Short words are often more concrete. Car vs vehicle vs conveyance.
  • 1
    Also in fiction a character's use of vocabulary can indicate aspects of formality (e.g., a nervous person might slip into more formal phrasing which would tend to include longer words, also military and legal use seems to favor longer words [only partially for being more general/less concrete], also a coronation might be illuminated while a casual restaurant meal might be lit) or intellectual tone (whether artificial or natural). Even narration can reflect a particular mind. Sep 23 '13 at 23:15

Never use a long word when a diminutive one will do.

In general, I use short, common words rather than long, obscure words whenever possible. Some people like to use big words because they want to impress the reader with how smart they must be to know and use all these big words. I've had documents I've written for my company where an editor who came after me in the process went through and substituted long words for all my short, simple words. Like changed every occurrence of "use" to "utilize" and that sort of thing. If you ever find yourself thinking like that, stop. The purpose of writing is not to impress the reader with how smart you are, but to convey information to the reader.

Of course this doesn't mean that I never use long words. Sometimes the long word is more specific than the short word, or more precisely conveys the intended meaning. Sometimes I'm looking for a particular rhythm in a sentence. A long word can slow down a sentence, and thus help to add just a little bit of tension before springing the last word.

Side note: As Kit says, "lit" means to set on fire. You should say "lit up everything around them", not "lit everything".

  • +1 But you might note that the fiction tag was used. In fiction (or poetry), the use of longer words might be justified even when shorter words would more clearly express the defined meaning. E.g., one could not easily have characters playing buzzword bingo in a meeting if only short, clear wording is used. :-) Sep 23 '13 at 23:21
  • @PaulA.Clayton Oh, sure. If you're quoting someone, you quote what he said, not what you think he should have said. If you're writing a fictional character, you put words in his mouth that fit the character, not necessarily what you would say. If a character is supposed to be an MBA executive, then yeah, he probably should say "paradigm" and "utilize" and "synergy" a lot.
    – Jay
    Sep 25 '13 at 14:58

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