Apr 3, 2009

Humpback Chub

by Sarah Albrecht

“Humpback chub,” my fourth-grade son greeted me in the driveway after school.

This startled me only slightly, as he tends to latch onto words that intrigue him. He’d learned about humpback chub that day in science lab. They’re odd-looking endangered fish that live only in the Colorado River and can live to be twenty-five years old. Interesting as that may be, I doubt my son would have met me in the driveway and announced the fish’s name if it had been as mundane as “bass” or “trout.”

Which left me thinking about something we all know--that the right words have power. I liked the reminder anyway, because it's easy to draft vague mishmash. Great word choice is usually hard work, sweated out in revision. But the right word rouses interest. The right simile zings meaning to the reader’s mind.

Without going back to refresh myself, I tried thinking of great word choice in some of the books I’ve read, figuring that those words must have had staying power. In A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court, Mark Twain described a courtier in orange tights as a forked carrot. Humpback chub didn’t startle me, but this did. In A Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, Annie Dillard described a rising flock of starlings as a black net tossed into the air, and a daytime gibbous moon as a smudge of chalk. Perfect. In one of my most favorite books ever, A Single Shard, Linda Sue Park named her orphaned lead Tree Ear, the Korean term for mushrooms that grow on trees and appear without “parents.” The name intrigued while representing everything the character longed for.

When I actually have my work in progress far enough along that I can revise for word choice, I need to force myself to find those words that reach out and clutch readers. Maybe I’ll start with humpback chub?


  1. Thanks Sarah. A Humpback Chub makes me grin just to read it. You are so right about word choice. The right word can save a sentance or two. I was stuck last night with how to discribe a physical reaction so I asked my husband what he would call this, then I showed him the movement. He is a very practical and logical engineer. He smiled and described it so clear and simple. I was trying so hard to use a clever metaphore or something profound. I learned that sometimes just to keep it clean and simple. Hey, that could be the subject of my next blog.

    Thanks for tweaking my creativity with your blog.

  2. You are so right! There are times when I get lazy and just write what comes easiest, but if I make myself stop and think about it, I can often come up with something different. A couple of readers remarked on a phrase I used in my Regnecy, TThe Stranger She Married", that the heroine found being in his presence was like "trying to ward of a hurricaine with a parasol." Imagine me as clever. Defies reason...
    Still, not as clever as humpback chub!

  3. Very nice, Sarah! I love it! I also appreciate your mentioning how you are far enough in your wip to revise for word choice. Sometimes I get so caught up in finding the right word I tick off my muse and off she goes with an offended sniff. ONe of the things I love about Liz Adair's latest book is her use of words and phrases...nothing cliche...and so precise. Love it!

  4. Excellent analysis Sarah. Words can give us such powerful responses...like the ones that just make us laugh or cry or feel inspired. Words do matter.

  5. Writers do love words and I often write down the amazing phrases and words that I read and analyze them, so that maybe I can create such vivid images with my own writing.


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