Fitting the Words to the Occasion

Global business strategy

Solving globe puzzle by finding the correct puzzle pieces

In elementary school, I discovered the joys and complexities of writing. Through a summer creative writing class, I learned how the right word choice can make a poem memorable, dialogue meaningful, and a setting realistic. As a graduate student at Harvard University writing scientific research papers and a doctoral thesis, I revisited the importance of precision in writing. Medical and scientific writing employs a special vocabulary of scientific terms, abbreviations known only to others within the field, and a careful, well-organized tone.

Whether you are a professional writer creating highly technical and specialized documents, a journalist, an academic researcher writing for a scholarly audience, a novelist, or an author of a non-fiction book, you need to select the correct words to create clear and effective communication. Here are some ideas that have helped me fit the words to the occasion:

  1. Choose precise words. Resist the temptation to embellish your writing with multiple adjectives and adverbs. Choose “sprinted” over “quickly ran” and “coral” over “deep orangish pink”. Concise, clear writing makes it easier for your reader to follow your message. When you do insert an adjective, make sure it enhances the thought you want to convey. Even in a novel or memoir where you must describe the setting of your story to capture your reader’s interest, edit out superfluous sentences that do not advance the plot.
  2. Listen to the rhythm and flow of your sentences. Writing poetry teaches you to pay attention not only to the meaning of words, but also to the sound of words. Some lessons from poetry can improve prose. If you are deciding between two words that both carry a similar meaning, choose the one whose syllables improve the rhythm of your sentence. To draw your reader into a scene where characters experience fast-paced action, keep your sentences short. To transport readers to a bucolic setting in an historical novel, indulge in writing an opening paragraph of long sentences with descriptive clauses.
  3. Create a consistent tone. Scholarly writing has a consistent tone with logically structured paragraphs and a detached viewpoint creating a sense of objectivity. A “How To” book reads quickly, dispensing friendly advice on a given topic. A chapter in a novel or memoir describing a difficult time in a person’s life usually carries a somber, reflective tone. Pay attention to the connotations of words to create the right tone for your article or book chapter. When writing dialogue for a character, choose words that let the personality of the character shine through. As the character develops and grows throughout the book, allow his or her word choice to reflect those changes. In a non-fiction book with an overall formal tone, you can intersperse illustrations that carry a lighter, informal tone to break up the reading difficulty and keep your reader engaged. Think about what tone is appropriate for your writing in the early stages of your project as you are developing your outline.

What techniques do you use to fit the words to the occasion?

Idiosyncrasies of the English Language

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Don’t panic. I’m not going all-out academic linguistics on you, but we need to take a moment to consider the quirks of the American English language (as opposed to British). More to the point: what is said vs. what is meant.

When I say: “Wow, that garbage can is full.”

It means: “Get off your butt and lug out that Hefty bag, would ya?”

When my husband says: “Can I help with dinner?”

It means: “Have you been on Pinterest all day or what? Why isn’t the food on the table yet?”

When the sales clerk says: “Have a nice day.”

It means: “I don’t care a rat’s behind what kind of day you have as long as you fill out the survey on the bottom of the receipt and make me look good.”

When words are spoken face to face, it’s easier to decipher because of body language. But when the written word is your medium of choice, it’s all the harder to convey what a character actually means. On the up side, this can be used to an author’s advantage by choosing words that convey characterization via dialogue.

Or it can leave your reader scratching their head and relegating your book to the bottom of the stack on their nightstand.

What to do?

The best way to make each of your characters say what they really mean (and not give the reader a different expectation) is to know your character well before they speak. This requires some groundwork before you begin a new manuscript. Yes, this takes time, but in the long run it will pay off.

Know your characters. Know them well. Then use the words that flow out of their mouths to solidify who they are in your reader’s mind. Those are the kind of characters that stick with a reader long after they’ve closed the book.

But Don’t Overdo It

I love sarcasm. Give me a character who’s snappy and snippy with their dialogue and bam—instant like fest as far as I’m concerned. So it surprises me when my snarky personalities aren’t always well loved. What’s the deal?

Apparently I’m in the minority. Surprisingly, sarcasm doesn’t head the list of likeable traits, which can work against an author while crafting characters. It is your job as a writer to make your reader fall in love with your characters . . . or at least want to have coffee with them.

What authors do you know who have mastered the art of dialogue?