Saturday, 10 September 2016

Seven Ways to Improve Your Word Choices

“It’s like a black fly in your chardonnay” mused Alanis Morissette in her 1996 song “Isn’t it ironic?” thereby launching a hundred English Lit classes on the subject of irony. 

Listening to this song while driving to work the other day, I was struck by the precision of word choice that juxtaposes the perfection of a glistening glass of white wine with the disgust inducing sight of a disease-ridden black fly. Words matter. They are the writer’s toolbox of emotional hooks. They catch readers and hold them. Put enough of the right words in your story and readers will not be able to put it down.

In a perfect world, we would choose each word to impart its exact meaning. Our sentence structure would provide each word in perfect order, and our prose would impart coherent thought on every line. Sadly, we don’t always live up to these lofty expectations. Fear not gentle writer, help is at hand. Here are seven ways to improve your word choices in any story:

1. Read

The more you read, the wider your exposure to new words and new ways of using words will be. I love the dictionary feature on my old Kindle. There is a small joy to discovering the meanings behind a new word and marvelling at how the writer used it to evoke a feeling. When the Kindle dictionary fails me, I turn to

2. Make friends with the thesaurus

Much as we would all like to be a flowing font of unique text, sometime we need a little help. The thesaurus in your word processor is a good start, but there are better options. Roget’s Thesaurus is one of the staples for any writer. A good online alternative is

3.  The comfort of the familiar

Writers are creatures of habit. We all have favourite words that we overuse. This can lead to boring text if we use that same words within a short distance of each other. My weaknesses are look/see and variations of this. Try to identify your own.
I use two approaches to removing overused words, either reach for the thesaurus, or rewrite the sentence.

4.  Repeating phrases

Allied to overused words is the irksome habit of reusing the same phrase within a short distance of the original. The writer’s mind is adept at optimising the creative process. Why expend the effort on creating a new phrase when you already have a ready-made phrase to reuse?
Rewording these phrases is an easy fix once you master the art of identifying them.

5. Vaguely generic

Know some stuff about a lot of things. Words craft the reality we create. Be brave and avoid empty words that cheat our readers out of a clear picture of our story. Clear writing is where you get to stamp your authority as a writer on the story. The reader remembers original phrases long after they finish reading.

6. Bigger is not better

Broadening your vocabulary gives you access to a splendid array of less common words. Resist the temptation to show off your awesome wordsmithing skills with your big vocabulary. Sometimes a spade is just a spade, and not a rust-bound digging implement of woe. Choosing the right words means choosing the ones that tell your story and only that.

7. Time changes everything

Your word choices are a reflection of who you are as a writer.  They reflect not only the culture you come from, but also the time. Take that glass of chardonnay. Back in the Nineties, chardonnay was the go-to wine for every occasion. Come forward a decade or two and it has given way to other varietals, and the word choice no longer has the impact it had back then.
Once you understand your cultural bias, you can choose whether to use it or not. This makes all the difference if you want to deliberately affecting the voice of another time or place.

No comments:

Post a Comment