The Shocking Truth about Charged Words

Danger: Words
Danger: Words
Your mama is so fat… Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious
The “N” word I have a dream…
Death panels I win!
Danger! Sunshine, lollipops and rainbows
Our little girl has cancer Free kittens!
Hijacked jets destroy twin towers Je suis Charlie

Sweet Emotion

What do the words and phrases in the above columns have in common? They are “charged words”—words and phrases that, by their very sounds, definitions, connotations, or denotations, evoke a strong emotion in the reader or listener. Note the variety of emotions represented here—the horror you felt on 9/11, your anger at the racial epithet, your delight as you sang with Mary Poppins, the excitement you’ll feel when you win the lottery (even a dollar!). 

The strong emotion and sense of solidarity I felt upon first hearing “Je suis Charlie” sparked my impulse to write about charged words. Other issues pressed in, so we’re finally plugging in the electric today.

What is your most basic goal as a writer? You may want to provide information, entertain, prove a hypothesis, ask questions, or provide analysis. None of these tasks will be successful, though, unless you first make your readers care by engaging them and evoking their emotions.

You can evoke emotion by creating vivid imagery, using words to draw a picture so clear readers can imagine the smell of a subway stairwell. You can do it by developing action so realistic readers cringe when a car careens around a curve. You can do it by researching and relating new information to support a position on net neutrality.

Try This

Charged words can increase the emotional level created by any of these methods. For example, can you pick out words that help evoke your emotional, sensory reaction to each of the following scenes?

  1. Cal stepped over the grocery bag. Mold and graffiti were on the walls. A single lightbulb flickered and moths flew around it. The steps were wet and had cigarette butts on them. When he reached the sidewalk, Cal breathed deeply.
  2. Cal stepped over the twisted plastic grocery bag, careful to avoid the neon pink slime oozing from it. Black mold inched up the block walls to join “Dowgz” and “T-Zer5’s” fight for territory. Overhead, a single overhead bulb hung like a noose. Flickering like a strobe, it buzzed as moths flew death spirals. Rain puddled in the depressions worn into the cement steps, cigarette butts struggling to the surface after each dunk by Cal’s Nikes. Despite the downpour, Cal filled his lungs as he reached the sidewalk.

Did you pick out the words that helped create the depressing mood and disgusting environment?

  1. mold, graffiti, flickered, moths, wet, butts.
  2. twisted, avoid, slime, oozing, mold, fight, territory, hung, noose, flickering, moths, death, depressions, worn, butts, struggling, dunk, downpour. Can you make the case for others?

Do you see how making your description more vivid using charged words helps you feel like you are there?

Be Clear

Charged words can be various parts of speech—noun, verb, etc. Be careful, though, not to overuse adjectives and adverbs. At first glance, these may seem like great candidates. “Beautiful,” “angry,” “delightfully” and “fearfully” describe, don’t they? The problem is, they are vague, general. When you use them in your writing, it’s like making your readers peer through frosted glass.

Do you mean “angry” as in “silently clenching his jaw and shaking,” “stomping from room to room, cursing and yelling” or “throwing furniture and breaking windows”? Do you mean “beautiful” as Beyonce, Jennifer Lawrence, your grandmother who beat cancer, your new infant or your Black Lab? It’s your job as the writer to be specific.

It is okay to use specific adjectives and adverbs. You’ll note that I used several of these in my subway paragraph. These are modifiers that can only be interpreted in one way:

  • Numbers
  • Colors
  • Verbals (verbs act as adjectives: e.g., twisted)
  • Attributive nouns (nouns act as adjectives: e.g., plastic)

A Supercharged List of Charged Words

Be sure to check out “317 Power Words That’ll Instantly Make You a Better Writer” at On his blog, Boost Blog Traffic, Jon Morrow gives his list and the people who comment add their own words. Type ‘em up and keep ‘em handy, but be judicious in accepting the words offered—remember what I told you about adjectives and adverbs!

Now get out there and charge!  LightningBolt

**Note: How are you doing with your New Year’s writing resolution? I sent my picture book to 13 agents. Woo hoo!

photo credit: <a href=””>GDL studio</a> via <a href=””>photopin</a&gt; <a href=””>cc</a&gt;

photo credit: <a href=””>Cheap Lightning Bolt (PDF)</a>