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Diction: Right Word, Right Time

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Sun Sep 09, 2007 3:00 am
Cade says...

The difference between the right word and the almost right word is the difference between lightning and a lightning bug.

-Mark Twain

Nothing is more important in your writing than the words you use; with what else would we create our poems, stories, and essays? Language is complex and changing, full of possibilities. How can you, as a writer, take advantage of it?

Word choice can make or break your writing, especially in poetry. At the time of your first draft, words and descriptions spill onto the paper, and you may think little of them. Do you consider your word choice carefully when you're casually conversing with your friends? Consider this:
Walter was happy.

That makes sense, doesn't it? You got across what you were trying to say...or did you? When you say that Walter is happy, do you mean that he is just mildly pleased? Are you trying to say that Walter is so thrilled that he might explode? Or maybe you mean a happiness in between? The English language has words for all of those varying shades. In conversation with your friends, “happy” would probably suffice. In your writing, you can do more.

Also consider the denotation and connotation of your words. For example, “pretty” and “handsome” both mean “good-looking” in terms of a person's appearance, but rarely would we describe a man as “pretty.”

Look at the difference between these sets of synonyms:
Which would you use if you wanted to describe complete luxury? soft | silky
Which best describes a nice perfume? stench | scent
When are you taking your jacket, and when are you taking your parka? chilly | freezing
Which has the more negative connotation? grin | smirk
You take Prozac for this. sadness | depression
How would you best describe fireworks? deafening | noisy
Which is best for describing your grandmother? old | antique

A thesaurus is a useful tool for finding the just the right word for a certain situation, but you can go beyond the realm of mere synonyms when it comes to description. Look at this stanza from Howard Nemerov's “The View from an Attic Window”:
The snowflakes fell, until all shapes
Went under, and thickening, drunken lines
Cobwebbed the sleep of solemn pines.

When Nemerov describes the lines as “drunken,” he hardly means that the snow has been at a bar all night swallowing beer after beer. He uses the word in a more connotative way to create a beautiful and original image.

When you're choosing your words, you have to think about a lot of things. You want to make sure that you're communicating something the best way possible. You also want to make sure that the words you choose fit with the rest of your piece, and with your subject matter and intended audience.

The poet Robert Frost, for example, is famous for the beauty and simplicity of his language. He was a master of sound and rhythm, yet his poems are built of the language he heard from the people around him. It is said that he captured the voice of New England; for Frost, the best words were commonplace—but hardly mundane.

If you're writing prose and you're working on dialogue, or you have a first-person narrator, make sure the way that person speaks is in character.
If your narrator is Huck Finn, he probably won't be using many words off of your SAT vocabulary list. On the other hand, if your narrator is a college professor, he's more likely to speak in an educated manner, and his vocabulary and word choice may depend on what he teaches; a chemistry professor may speak differently from a history professor.
Where are your characters from? Do they speak more than one language? Are they speaking in their native language? What may have happened in a character's life that would affect his or her manner of speaking?

But remember, don't go too crazy when you're trying to find just the right word. Young writers, sometimes prompted by well-meaning middle- and high-school English teachers, write essays or stories overflowing with “better” words. Sadly, it's too much of a good thing.

When you find ten-dollar synonyms for nearly every word in your piece of writing, you have what we call A-Thesaurus-Puked-On-The-Page Syndrome. It's a terrible illness and you must avoid it.
Here's what can happen when you have ATPOTP Syndrome:
“Henry lied to Sam about killing the cat,” becomes “Henry equivocated to Sam about annihilating the cat.” Nobody wants to read that. Nobody.

Remember what I said about Frost? He had thousands of words at his disposal, yet he knew exactly when to use them; would we love Frost so much if he had replaced his simple but beautiful phrases with the most extensive, complex, and hard-to-spell words he could think of? Don't use enormous words where smaller, more common ones fulfill your purpose. We must keep a good balance; find the best word, but keep in mind that simplicity is elegance.

Good luck!
Last edited by Cade on Wed Sep 12, 2007 12:26 am, edited 1 time in total.
"My pet, I've been to the devil, and he's a very dull fellow. I won't go there again, even for you..."

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Sun Sep 09, 2007 7:36 pm
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Emerson says...

Completely true! Colly, this was lovely. You went beyond the thesaurus, and also spoke about words that describe. The poem examples were perfect. I'll have to bookmark this so I can link to it when I rant about word choice.

I hope to see more articles from you!
“It's necessary to have wished for death in order to know how good it is to live.”
― Alexandre Dumas, The Count of Monte Cristo

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Mon Sep 10, 2007 1:24 am
Cade says...

*blushes* Thanks, Clau.
"My pet, I've been to the devil, and he's a very dull fellow. I won't go there again, even for you..."

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Wed Sep 12, 2007 3:19 am
something euclidean says...

Yes! Thank you for mentioning thesaurus disease, because it is a temptation that a lot of [newer] writers will fall into when they're told that they need to make things more vivid/elaborate. And it's cool that there's an "activity" in this too.

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