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Writing Tip: Those Pesky Words


Lugh

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Those Pesky Words

by Cia


I was having a discussion with an author the other day about words. Why do we pick the ones we use when we write? What should the focus be on, the words themselves or they image they are meant to convey?

When I first started writing, I used a lot of formal language. For example, from my first story, The Price of Honor: The strange color registered with his consciousness but he continued to stare blankly about, trying to process the abrupt dislocation that he had just experienced.

Right. People think or talk that way. I don't think so.

After getting advice from other authors and having readers tell me what works and what doesn't, I don't write like that anymore. I've realized, that for my writing style, smaller is better. I narrate my stories the same way I speak and leave formal language for dialogue by characters that need it. If I were to re-write that line now, it would be different and look like this: He noticed the strange color of the plants, but he stared blankly at the bush in front of him. He'd expected a city landing pad when he woke up, not this wilderness.

They mean the same thing, but my words aren't getting in the way of the image in the second line. People know the plants are a strange color and he's in a wilderness that he wasn't expecting. That's all that is needed. Instead of flexing my vocabulary muscles, I'm letting the story speak in a voice that most readers will be more familiar with and understand more easily. I think it gives my stories a readability that they were lacking in the past.

 

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and
Happy Writing!

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I had to reread the first line two times after reading the second one to get the meaning/see similarities. But then I am a bit dense...

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I know that when I was writing my first story (coming soon :whistle:), I tried my best to make sure the characters weren't coming off as walking thesauruses. That's not to say they were totally dumb, but rather that their language was, well, typical of people their age.

 

I'll admit to sometimes flexing my own vocabulary a bit when I speak or post, because I know different words and what they mean. :P I also know it's not exactly guaranteed that someone I write about will be the same way (unless I make them so). So...having to use some restraint on my choice of words was sometimes a bit challenging, especially since I used a first-person POV. But, I'm not sure I could've made it work the way I wanted to with third-person.

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So true. I see some beautifully written stories on the internet, but sometimes the beauty of the words distracts from the content of the story.

 

This is especially true for the first person POV. I'm having an interesting time writing from an inner-city teenager's POV . . . it takes some work to weed out my adult vocabulary. I keep using the thesaurus to look for simpler synonyms :P

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Very good point Cia. Also very valid when doing public speaking. Use 'common' language and don't try to make yourself sound or look smarter than your audience ;)

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Using too much flowery language can come over as pretentious or contrived. Simpler is best wherever possible, IMHO.

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I dunno, Cia. I'm 50/50 on this one. Generally, you're probably right. On the other hand, words are important. Perhaps it's part of the 'dumbing down' debate. For example, your word 'dislocation' is incredibly powerful. For me, at least, it sums up a whole host of powerful images and emotions. I guess I'd have to get the context where you used it but, for me, I'd hang on to it tenaciously!

 

Riley J

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I agree that strong words can make an impact, but if they're drowning in other flowery/ornate words, they stand out less. I think if 'dislocation' were to be the focus of the first sentence, that'd be fine, so long as some of the other words were a bit plainer.

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I've struggled with this a lot over the last few years. Through college I picked up a lot of vocabulary, and I became concerned for those words: if no one uses them, will they die? At first I didn't like the idea that part of the language would atrophy, but over time I've accepted that if a word does not get used, then it must not be useful enough. (There is, however, an element of education here: vocabulary is becoming less and less the object of education before college. Sure, the SAT assesses it, but other than that, the focus is shifting toward research and information retrieval skills.)

 

But what about pleasure? Having several available terms to cover a small field of meanings can afford a certain pleasure. Synaesthetes will tell you that sensory experiences attach themselves to certain letters. In that case, selecting a word means not only approximating a meaning, but also importing sensual cues. When I write a particularly affective scene, I listen to songs that represent that feeling for me with that hope that the music will guide me toward more sensually accurate word choices. (Weird, eh?) Having a field of terms to select from--even if some might drive the reader to the dictionary--is a privilege.

 

Very good point Cia. Also very valid when doing public speaking. Use 'common' language and don't try to make yourself sound or look smarter than your audience wink.png

 

I have several points of disagreement or at least clarification here. Part of the joy of reading is, according to some, being in the hands of a master story-teller; hence, the tie between author and authority. To tell the truth, I do want to read an author who seems smarter than me, or who has something to offer that I do not have. I completely sympathize with the sentiment here: no one wants to read an author who's flexing his vocabulary for show, but let's not assume that all uses of non-"common" language necessarily have that as an aim. Lastly, there are certain characters who are fun to read or write because of their overblown diction. (For examples: Nabokov's Humbert Humbert and Faulkner's Rosa Coldfield.)

 

I agree that strong words can make an impact, but if they're drowning in other flowery/ornate words, they stand out less. I think if 'dislocation' were to be the focus of the first sentence, that'd be fine, so long as some of the other words were a bit plainer.

 

I like this understanding best. When an author places a slightly erudite term amongst otherwise everyday vocabulary because that term is the most specific, the effect for the reader is really exciting. I just read a Gwendolyn Brooks novel, Maud Martha, where her vocabulary is mostly simplistic, but occasionally she lets fall a perfect, specific word, and the effect is stunning.

 

I can agree to simple being best, but only if simple means most exact. Simplifying would be dangerous.

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You touch a nerve with this subject. I guess because I often get "wordy" in my writing and it kills the flow. At times I wish I could be more like Hemingway was: I;ve heard he was unrelenting in cutting out all unnessecary words which allows for a fast pace, but at the expense of developing characters that seem shallow in their thoughts, unreflective and pragmatic to the extreme. At the other end of the spectrum is David Foster Wallace; his writing is awesome, but also infuriating in detail and vocabulary. I have to keep a dictionary by my side while reading his novels. It's a slow tedious process. So, I guess there needs to be a balance.

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