Choose Wisely

Good advice for much of life, that.

Do you buy the brand new car with higher payments or the used car with lower payments that might just be a lemon? Do you stay in the comfortable job with decent pay or aim to get one that tests your potential but could be a nightmare? Crunchy or smooth? Do you arm yourself with guns or swords to fight the zombies?

All those are important questions. If you’re wondering about my answers, they are: new, aim, crunchy, swords (or crossbow, no guns).

Of course, choosing wisely doesn’t necessarily have to impact the future of your life, as evidenced by my peanut butter crack (though if peanuts give you an anaphylactic reaction, the future of your life would be pretty dim). It can, however, influence the effectiveness of your book/essay/short story/blurb/article. Word choice. That’s what we’re meandering about today, gentle viewers. Here’s what Ye Olde Writing Gods have to say about it:

9. Word Choice
The poet Frank O’Hara is rumored to have given this advice: “If you think in pictures, write. If you think in words, paint.”

This turns out to provide some guidance on word choice. If you’re stuck on a word, sketch what it is you’re trying to describe. It doesn’t matter how good you are at drawing. What matters is the employment of a different skill set, a portion of the brain distinct from the one that has been searching for the mot juste.

Or consider a soundtrack for the scene. Let the scene play out in time along with the music, or read it aloud with the music as background. When you employ a different depictive medium than mere words, different associative threads (or synaptic connections) can be brought to bear on the task.

The mot juste. The perfect vehicle to convey whatever je ne sais pas you are going for with your story. Certainly important. I don’t often get stuck on one word. They just sort of flow most of the time. The moments I most struggle with word choice is in revision, and since that’s what I’m doing with my novel right now, I hereby invoke the privilege of a lone blogger to be a wee bit self-centered. I’ll come back round to first draft word choice, but let’s talk about revising word choice for the present.

I’ve mentioned this before, but in my writers’ arsenal, there is a wonky little gun. It fires at will and at random, and it shoots the word slightly all over everywhere. It has gotten on people’s faces, on their feet, in their beds, in their teacups, and just made a veritable mess of obnoxious little adverb. I’ve found it hiding in exposition, description, and dialogue. That little gun goes off at the most inopportune moments and embarrasses me to no end.

So why is it poor word choice? Well, words like slightly (including the parade of other adverbs), was, and other vague and misty words are timid. They’re uncorporeal. They’re like ghosts. You can see what they’re hovering around, but they obscure the action.

Consider this paragraph I read last night:

The jacket was hanging on the doorknob of Richard’s closet. He was sitting forlornly on the bed, watching me put the last touches on my lipstick. I was leaning forward, peering at myself in the mirror on his dresser. The skirt was short enough that I decided to wear a black teddy under it, not for underwear but to go over my pantyhose so everything matched.

It’s not bad writing — Laurell K. Hamilton seldom if ever writes anything bad. But this is timid. In four sentences, she uses one active verb: decided. Which isn’t even that active on an external plane. Internal action is all well and good, but considering that many other little actions happen throughout this paragraph, there really ought to be more of that. Now here:

The jacket hung on the doorknob of Richard’s closet. He sat forlornly on the bed, watching me put the last touches on my lipstick. I leaned forward, peering at myself in the mirror on his dresser. The skirt was short enough that I decided to wear a black teddy under it, not for underwear but to go over my pantyhose so everything matched.

Just by changing three of the passive verbs to active, the whole paragraph seems more vivid. Less vague. There’s nothing wrong with the occasional passive verb used in very sparing quantities, but you just can’t beat using active verbs. It makes your characters jump off the page. You’re in the room with them as opposed to watching them through a peephole.

A lot of people tend to go overboard on passive voice in the first draft (guilty…cough). What’s important is that when you revise your work, you can go back and weed them out. If it looks too silly with an active verb, maybe try a different verb. Try sketching out what you want to get across like they recommend in The 25. Yodel. I don’t know — just be diligent about finding that mot juste to give your work more umph.

(Umph is a technical term.)

Word choice is a combination of many factors including knowing your audience and the tone of your work. If you’re writing that children’s zombie book from yesterday, you wouldn’t refer to Jane’s consumption of John’s brains as superfluous. Repeating a few words or key phrases can create unity in your work, which is a tip from The 25 that I apparently skipped. Oops. Up for a quick two-fer?

7. Unity
One method for creating a sense of unity in a piece of writing is the use of selective repetition. A detail or remark or even just a unique word mentioned early in your piece can be echoed later, creating a sense of wholeness through the reader’s recognition of the previous mention. That recognition also imbues the repeated element with a resonance, not unlike a coda in a musical composition. The reader enjoys a satisfying sense of progression, of having moved from one literary moment to another.

Reread a piece you’re working on with an eye toward finding that element you could repeat in a subtle way, and then look for a place later in the piece where you could drop it in. If you’re unsure which one would be most affective, experiment by trying several. Ask yourself: If you had to cut all the details or images and retain only one, which one would you keep? That’s the one you want.

That ties in with word choice quite well. It all boils down to being effective and choosing the patch from A to B that packs the most punch. Closing advice? Don’t be timid — say what you want to say without apology. You don’t need the adverb gun spewing junque all over your work. Trust your readers to sense that John’s head dangled grotesquely on the remnants of his spinal cord without you having to use the word grotesquely. Trust your readers to sense whether someone closed the door lightly or forcefully depending on the context — or your wise choice of substituting “slam” as the verb in the case of the latter. Choose vivid details and use them to create unity.

All of this stuff tugs the gaping stitches that bind your story together so they come close and tight at the seams and create a cohesive whole.

That’s it for today, gentle viewers. I’m off to work on cleaning up the mess left by the adverb gun. Will let you know how it goes.


About Emmie Mears

Saving the world from brooding, one self-actualized vampire at a time.

Posted on October 19, 2011, in writing process and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 2 Comments.

  1. Oh how I love that you chose an example from Laurell K. Hamilton. I’ve quite enjoyed her Anita Blake series, but I have felt that the quality of writing seems to vary – I have never looked at the cause of such a feeling as closely as you seem to here, but there were certainly some books that kept me enraptured as a reader much more then other.

  2. Great post on word choice!

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