Thursday, November 08, 2007

Use Your Words

Posted by Lynne

At the earliest stages of life, we're encouraged to choose our words carefully. Parents say use your words hundreds of times a day to little ones learning to express frustration, anger or sadness. Teachers with red pens poised on paper implore older children to define, describe, elaborate.

Written communication, in the absence of tone of voice and body language, rests on word choice alone to convey meaning, emotion, and motivation. No wonder every single word counts in the writing and revising of a novel.

As far back as Aristotle, the use of words to describe precisely the proper and special name for a thing was discussed. Later, Mark Twain wrote, the difference between the right word and the almost right word is the difference between lightning and lightning bug.

Rebecca McClanahan writes in her wonderful book, Word Painting: Naming is so basic to the writing process, so intricately woven into every effective description, that we often overlook its importance. Yet without this first act, without a precise, significant and musical naming, no description can be attempted, no work of literature born.

Whatever you're naming, there are guidelines for choosing words well. McClanahan suggests that beyond choosing the accurate name for something, writers should focus on precision. For example, there is a significant distinction to be made between a bed and a gurney, or a braid and a mane.

Many writers on writing suggest limiting adjectives and adverbs in favor of choosing powerful subjects and strong verbs. This doesn't mean you need to challenge your vocabulary by choosing words readers won't understand, but it does mean choosing vivid words that capture mood and invoke emotion.

Like all writers I have my pet peeves when it comes to word choice. First on my list of offenders is the repeater. You know, that wonderful word you think packs such a punch that you use it over and over and over again.

I'll bet you have strong feelings about word choice too. So today, I invite you to list your positive suggestions for the proper and specific naming of things. Please share your tips in the comment section and I promise to round them up in a future blog entry.

Until then, take a look at a wonderful post called the Top Ten Mistakes Writers Make at our friend Therese's blog.

Every writer has the obligation to improve his or her writing one word at a time.


Leigh Russell said...

Hi Hannah, what a wonderful blog!

First I must congratulate you - Lisa on finding an agent, Amy on your novel coming out next year, Hannah on completing your draft, and Lynn - I wish I'd read The Negotiation Generation before now! and congratulations on your book coming out in 2009. What a prolific and talented group of girls you are!

I'm not sure about your use of the word obligations. I'm happy to just enjoy writing. I know one should always try to improve, but there's a little voice in my head warning me that if I strive too hard, I'll lose my joy in writing, and that, after all, is why I do it.

I write my books in the voices of different characters. Some employ a wide range of lexis, while others are fairly inarticulate. Both are a challenge. With the latter, I try to limit my vocabulary to write in my characters' voices, without sacrificing clarity or communication.

I'd love to hear from you all on my blog where fellow writers are always welcome. That way I'll easily be able to find my way back to your blog to which I would definitely like to return. It's great!

kristen spina said...

Lynne, thanks for the reminder on Therese's Top Ten Mistakes. It's good timing for me. I just printed out my first 6 chapters to scrutinize and now my head is filled with all sorts of things to watch out for. I just love coming over here and getting a good wake-up call!

Lynne Griffin and Amy MacKinnon said...

Word choice is, indeed, key to painting an accurate and compelling picture, and I too thank you for the reminder of Therese's top ten! My own thought on adverbs is that, per Stephen King, a text is better off without them. However, when I can't find any other way to show the emotion or pace behind a verb, I figure they're there for a reason and that the one I need is important enough to use! Leigh, glad you found us and congratulations on Cut Short! As a sister Wednesday blogger, I'll definitely be stopping by.


Therese said...

Lynne, I'm stealing a few minutes during my lunchtime to pop in--I'm writing from home today, which means Internet access, which means I can't resist a visit. :)

Thanks for the referral to my place. Those Top Ten Mistakes are a useful guide--though I stress "guide," as opposed to thinking of them as absolute must-nots.

I am in the camp that says adverbs and adjectives are essential; we just need to be selective and precise in our usage.

I share your pet peeve. We writers have to be vigilant when reviewing our work and not imagine that an editor will ferret out whatever's troublesome.

The only tip I can add to your view and McClanahan's is to avoid noun hyperbole. Really, this is a subset of precision...but for example, don't use "tresses" or "mane" when "hair" always works.

Hope all is well with the group!