Saturday, September 03, 2011

Three Tricks to Strengthen Your Word Choices

Here are a few nuggets I learned from Wordstock's Teacher as Writer workshop. You may already know these tricks of line editing and revision, but they raised the bar for me.

Verbs of awareness: "Saw", "heard", "thought", "felt", "tasted", and similar words are verbs of awareness. They point out the presence of the protagonist as separate from the reader and thereby distance your reader from the action. They draw attention to the process of noticing. When we see something, we don't think in our heads, "I see that." Instead, we register the thing itself. Often, writers use verbs of awareness in order to avoid what many of us see as one of the seven deadly sins of writing - the verb "to be." Teacher as Writer instructor Joanna Rose radically suggested we should embrace the verb "to be" as a means of removing verbs of awareness and making the sensory experiences of our characters more immediate. For example:

"I saw the monster rise up out of the lake. I heard its horrible groans. As I turned and ran down the path, I felt the brambles scrape my cheeks."
"The monster rose up out of the lake. It let out a horrible groan. I ran. Brambles scraped my cheeks."

For those of us who are teachers, verbs of awareness are a great scaffold while we are helping students build their skills at incorporating sensory details. But the language is even stronger when the scaffolding eventually goes away and there's nothing left between the reader and the sensory experience itself.

Redundancy: Look for places where you state the obvious. For example, if you've placed your characters inside a truck, you don't need to say, "I leaned against the truck window." "Window" alone will suffice. When you start getting good at the infamous skill of "show don't tell," you'll find redundancies popping up all over the place. If you show us the character speaking in an uncertain manner, for example, you no longer have to tell us they said something "uncertainly." Once you start looking for these, its amazing how many you'll find. It helps to have another pair of eyes looking, too.

Latin language vs. Saxon language: This was both the trickiest and most transformative concept for many of us at the workshop. Words with Latin roots, often multi-syllabic words, tend to create emotional distance. When a scene calls for emotional weight and gut-level power, the simple, usually mono-syllabic, punch of saxon-derived words has a stronger impact. For example:

"Humanity imbues astrological bodies with narrative."
"We tell stories about the stars."

Feel the difference? For all the juicy fun of high-blown academic language, sometimes simple, blunt words are the strongest.

The distance provided by latinate words can come in handy for humor or irony. The cutting, sardonic tone of writers such as Charles Dickens, Edith Wharton and Jane Austen often comes from the juxtaposition of latinate commentary against ugly, base truth. However, if you find that a scene you're writing just isn't having the emotional impact it should, maybe there are some latinate words getting in the way.

These three tricks have given me some new tools for fine-tuning my writing. What are some of your favorite, straight-forward revision or editing strategies that bring out the emotional punch by polishing your writing craft?


  1. I love this, Cindy. Have you checked out George Orwell's 'Politics and The English Language'? He's a major proponent of your third rule!

  2. I recently walked away with new verb knowledge. Listening and watching for those frequent verbs and branching out to use new ones! It's been very helpful for me!

    I loved this post! Thank you so much for sharing! I do hope you'll stop by my neck of the woods, I love meeting new people in the blogging world!

  3. Jen - Thanks for the comment. I love meeting new folks, too, and will definitely stop by.


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