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Weekly Writing Workshop: Diction

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Last time (here’s a link to the series so far) I talked about finding your voice as a writer. In doing so, I broke voice down to diction (word choice) and syntax (the order in which you choose to place those words). Today, I want to take a closer look at ways we can improve the diction part of our voice as writers.

Have you ever been offended, not by what someone said, but by the way they said it? Maybe, their diction was a little too harsh, informal, or crass. This idea works in reverse as well. I’ve often thought, “I totally disagree with what you said, but by god did you say it well.”

Imagine that you’ve been waiting around for thirty minutes for a friend to show up at your place. When they do, they say one of the following.

“Sorry, I’m late. I stopped to pick up some food on the way over.”

Or

“Sorry, I’m late. I grabbed some food on my way.”

While you’re still peeved at them either way, the second option has a better chance of being less abrasive. Why? Look at their word choice. “Stopped” feels slow. There is no motion here. Whereas “grabbed” not only shows motion but hurried motion. “Grab” is a blur. It shows a sense of urgency. When someone is late, we want to know that they were late despite rushing not because they weren’t rushing. Likewise, if you look at “picked up” you see a slow process broken into two words. Picking something up is a careful, deliberate, gentle process. You pick up an infant. You grab the Arkenstone (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sKFsyC3gzC8) because you don’t want to take a trip down the digestive system of a dragon (http://www.redbubble.com/people/motiv-lady/works/11711183-dragon-poop-shitting-toilet-cool-comic?p=t-shirt) .

Perhaps my favorite example is “rock” vs “stone.” To everyone outside of a geology department, these two words mean the same thing. They have the same denotation (literal meaning), but they have very different connotations (impressions). Picture a rock. It’s rough, jagged, dirty. Now, picture a stone. It’s smooth, polished, and round. While we can chalk this difference up to common usage in part, sound also plays a part here. While I won’t get into the “why” today—that’s another post altogether—for now, notice how both of these words sound. “Rock” sounds rough, hard. “Stone” sounds smooth, refined. Pay attention to how your words sound. Pay attention to their denotation and connotation. While I could say, “Sally’s dinner was a culinary abortion.” It’s probably not the best use of diction.

In part, the way a writer’s diction affects us has been wired into our brains through evolution. If I write:

“Tim went quickly to the store.”

Or

“Tim ran to the store.”

Which one hits you harder, grabs your attention more? By using more words to say the same thing, I literally slowed down how quickly you could process the information in the first sentence. This slows down the action. In addition, the first sentence is counting on the adverb “quickly” to create a sense of speed. Verbs are always stronger than adjectives or adverbs. Through evolution our brains have been hardwired to notice movement. It’s what made the difference between getting dinner and being dinner for our ancestors. Verbs grab our attention. Thus, “run” feels faster than “quickly.”

Take a look at one more example.

“Sally was laughing a lot and really loudly.”

Or

“Sally was bursting with laughter.”

Which of these gives you a clearer image? The second one most likely. Notice how much energy there is in the verb “bursting” versus “a lot and really loudly.”

While every writer should have their own unique voice developed from their own literary influences, there is a lot we can do to ensure that those voices are as polished and as effective as possible. Here are some tips to consider as you work on developing the diction side of your voice as a writer.

  1. Verbs are stronger than adverbs or adjectives.
  2. In general, you’ll want to select specific words over abstract ones.
  3. Consider the denotation of the words you’re using. Will your audience fully understand the words you’ve chosen? How much work are you asking your reader to do? How much are they willing to do?
  4. Consider the connotation of the words you’re using. While questioning my marriage isn’t necessarily a bad thing (I could be asking questions like, “Why is Niki so damned amazing?”), the word “questioning” has taken on a distinctively negative connotation.
  5. What level of formality do you need? Contractions and slang create a less formal feeling.
  6. Avoid using big words just to try and sound smart. If you use them incorrectly, you’ll look dumb. If you use them correctly, you can end up looking pompous.
  7. Try to avoid using hyperboles. People don’t “always” do something. Likewise “everyone” hardly think the same thing. Ask yourself, “Does my character really never think about her childhood?”
  8. Don’t use two words when one word will do.

The list of tips for developing good diction could go on for pages, but these are the ones that I’ve found the most helpful.

For this week’s prompt, write a scene without thinking about your diction. Just free-write it. Make sure that you double space it. Then, go back and examine your diction. Look at it like an editor. Are there places where you can exchange two adjectives for a better verb? Is your character speaking to formally/informally? Are there any words your audience might not understand? Are there any that could be interpreted in a way you didn’t intend?

Use the comment box below to let me know how it goes. I’ll look forward to hearing from you.

Best,

Darren

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