Weekly Writing Workshop: Diction


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.”


“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 ( because you don’t want to take a trip down the digestive system of a dragon ( .

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.”


“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.”


“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.




Writing Diaries – My Journey as an Aspiring Author

s 2A few of you might be aware that I am an aspiring novelist. I have been formulating the ideas for a book for the last year and have been seriously working on my novel, Dragon Games since March. It has taken a huge chunk of my time, but every sacrifice has allowed me to shape this story into something I’m really proud of. It’s one I’ve always wanted to read and it includes, you guessed it, dragons! Every few Sundays, I will be posting things related to my journey as an aspiring writer, whether it be great advice I’ve received, inspiring moments, or even snippets of my novel. This week’s topic:

The Most Inspiring Elements in My Work So Far

There are so many elements that go into writing a book, it can be overwhelming at times. luckily for me, I have an excellent support system in the form of my husband who teaches collegiate English and has forgotten more about the rules of writing than I will ever know. I also have several friends and acquaintances who graciously offer me their time and support in this project and keep me motivated every day to work towards my dreams. They remind me that I’m doing something bigger than myself and talk me out of the furnace when I’m ready to burn it all and start over again.

While support was essential for me to pursed to this as a career, I also needed to learn more about the craft. Along those lines, I signed up for two workshops offered by best-selling author David Farland (Professional Writers’ and Million Dollar Outlines) and found them invaluable in learning how to shape my novel into something people want to read. Farland is a wealth of experience and knowledge and any aspiring writer would benefit from one of his workshops (as a side note, I have also met some of the coolest people at these seminars and am convinced you will be seeing the published works from them in the future). For those of you who can’t make the seminars, he also has several daily writing “Kicks” that impart nuggets of his wisdom throughout the week. I can’t say enough good things about them and fully believe that if I make it as a writer it will be partly because of what I learned at these workshops.

Finally, this project wouldn’t have been imagined without the hundreds of fantastic books I’ve read so far. Every day in my adventures in reading I come across elements of writing that blow me away and help me improve my own craft. Stephen King once said “If you want to be a writer, you must do two things above all others: read a lot and write a lot. There’s no way around these two things that I’m aware of, no shortcut.” I couldn’t agree more; writing every day helps keep the creativity flowing and reading gives me ideas on what sort of book I want to write. Above all else, I know what I like to read and I believe that is invaluable information in creating a story others like me will enjoy.

A great writing support system, classes to improve my writing intelligence, and constant immersion in other authors’ creations are the elements that got me started and have kept me going. What elements inspire you?

by Niki Hawkes