Devil’s Details: Word Choice
Devil’s Details – Overlooked skills that every writer needs to have.
Last time I did one of these I talked about pacing — the skill of moving the actual prose at the speed you want, not just the plot and organization. Today we’re looking at another under-appreciated skill, one that many writers seem to assume is handled at an unthinking or instinctive level: using the right word for the right job.
If you’ve ever seen a politician or a celebrity castigated on the evening news for a careless slip of the tongue, you already know what a poorly-chosen word can do to you. Well-chosen words, in the proper order, will be remembered for years — look to Lincoln’s “Gettysburg Address,” the character King Henry’s “band of brothers” speech from Shakespeare’s Henry V, or Pericles’s “Funeral Oration” for a few examples of the art at its finest. Speeches make for particularly good examples because they stand on the merits of their rhetoric alone; there are no narrative considerations to secure their reputation as there are for novels and short stories.
Because their finished products tend to involve less total words than prose writers’, advertisers and speech-writers are particularly sensitive to the effect of each word on the whole. This does not mean that writers of longer fiction get a write-off, however; pounding out words to get the plot on the paper only works for the first draft. Even then, I find myself better served by a slower words-per-day rate that takes the wording of the story into greater consideration; the result is almost always less large sections discarded entirely during the editing process. Choosing the right words as you go along will not only make the ideas you want to express clearer, it will make your authority as the writer (and therefore the dissemination of those ideas) much more secure: yours will be the prose of someone who knows what he’s talking about.
Where to Care
Not every word on the page is going to be placed there as carefully as a stone in a Zen arrangement, but it’d sure be nice if your reader felt like it was. Unless you have the instinctive rhetorical skills of another William Jennings Bryant, get used to picking your battles — focusing on word choice where it matters most, both during the initial writing and in the course of your editing. You will certainly want to exercise the most care in any sections that present particularly crucial themes, or that impact the book in any other major way; at those points (and as much as you can everywhere else), pay attention to the roles your selection of vocabulary will need to play:
Dialogue is a crucial place to care about word choice, precisely because no one except practiced orators thinks about it as they speak. Unless all your characters talk like you (they shouldn’t), you are going to have to make a conscious effort to pick words that fit their unthinking patterns rather than yours. Most people use a tiny fraction of their working vocabulary for the vast majority of their conversations, so unless you’re trying to write a Mr. Smartypants, be sure to lay on the heavy repetition in dialogue — a man who calls his shoes “stanky” one day isn’t likely to suddenly switch to “overripe” the next, unless there’s a compelling reason (presence of a lady, perhaps).
Limited-perspective narration requires the same basic attention to consistency in word choice that dialogue does: you are describing the internal workings of one individual, and he or she presumably perceives the world in basically the same way from one day to the next. If you use lots of simple, common words, do it constantly and with plenty of repetition. If the character is a complicated thinker, bring in more abstract words and philosophical terms — there’s nothing wrong with showing off your vocabulary, but don’t do it unless it illustrates something besides how smart you are.
Omniscient narration is your voice, so you’re no longer worrying about consistency as an issue that might break someone’s suspension of disbelief or interest in your characters (though you still don’t want to jump around the place too much). What you should be focusing on in passages where the narrator speaks abstractly is the exact theme of that particular section — what do you want the reader to take away from this moment in the text? Is it demonstrative of a key theme in the work as a whole? (If it’s not, consider shutting your narrative voice up and just letting the characters do their thing.) Pick words that are powerfully associated with the idea or ideas you want to communicate.
How to Start Thinking about Words
Most of us are like casual conversationalists: we’re not in the habit of using our full vocabulary. When we want to communicate an idea, we usually reach for the same words that have served us well before. If you’re trying to write about something with real meaning, that’s a stumbling block you need to get over — you have to turn on the part of your brain that deals with hidden meanings and multiple definitions.
Wordplay comes up a lot in this blog, and it’s going to once more here. Puns and other cheap word gags are funny because they take advantage of similar sounds or multiple meanings, and that’s exactly what you need to make your key passages memorable. Don’t settle for any old word when you can use one that communicates your literal meaning and means something associated in a different context. Shakespeare was an inveterate punner, and he didn’t just use them for the dick jokes — the famous opening of Richard III, “Now is the winter of our discontent/made glorious summer by this son of York,” riffs on the son/sun homonym to conjure the image of welcome change, imbue the newly-crowned King Edward with solar majesty, and showcase the speaker’s own wit. And people who’ve never even seen the play still quote the line to this day.
Word games in the more conventional sense, crosswords and so forth, will also help get you in the habit of trying to find multiple words that can fit the same definition (and multiple definitions that fit the same word). Written versions of Exquisite Corpse, the surrealist party game, will also put the same part of the brain to work trying to come up with a logical antecedent to the very few words visible below the fold.
Poetry is in many ways the art of putting well-chosen words in the proper order, and reading a few favorites just before sitting down to write can have your mind in the right mood. Try for authors who demonstrate a broad vocabulary, whether or not the other mechanics of their poetry are to your liking — Alexander Pope and Edgar Allen Poe have served me well as inspireërs of creative word choice. Nonsense poems like The Jabberwocky take a different approach to word-choice by making up the best sound for a particular use rather than seeking the best meaning, and you may find value in their influence as well. Our brains do make associations based on sound, and an otherwise-unrelated word can easily be tied to another concept by the use of a word that looks very much like it on the page.
And, of course, reading other author’s work with a conscious eye to the vocabulary they choose will serve you well — consider experts of the well-placed word like William Faulkner, Virginia Woolfe, Nathaniel Hawthorne, and of course William Shakespeare. Got any authors that you think always pick the right word for the right idea? Drop a comment and let us know!