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May 28, 2020

Word Choice: What Does It Mean for Our Writing?

Path sign pointing in 3 directions with text: Word Choice: More Than Picking the "Right" Word

In the writing world, one of the terms that we often hear in tandem with point of view (POV) and voice is word choice. Like many things in writing, what the term means outside of our writing sphere isn’t quite the same as what it means within the context of writing.

So in the comments of my previous post, Sam asked me to do a post about word choice. Great idea, Sam! *smile*

I haven’t done a post specifically about the topic before, so let’s talk about word choice. What does word choice mean, how does it affect our writing, and what goes into choosing the right words?

What Is Word Choice?

Not surprisingly, when talking about word choice, we’re referring to the words we choose to use in our writing.

  • Do we stick to common words, or do we have (and use) a large vocabulary?
  • Do we use formal words and style, or do we use shortened versions of words (sorta, kinda, etc.)?
  • Do we throw in slang, invented, or non-English words?
  • Do we use vague words (man) or specific words (bartender)?
  • Do we use weak verbs or strong action verbs (went vs lunged)?
  • Etc., etc.

But for as simple as that sounds, the choices we make determine many important aspects of our storytelling skills. Let’s take a look…

3 Ways Our Word Choices Affect Our Writing

We’ll get more into other ways word choice affects our writing in a bit, but let’s start with the three biggies…

#1: Word Choice & POV

The concept of word choice plays heavily into the POV of our story and scenes. As we explored last week, the POV for a passage can affect the words used based on what the character notices (or doesn’t notice) or what’s important to them or the emotions evoked.

Beyond that understanding, if we’re writing in omniscient or with a shallow POV, the words we choose to use will likely be in line with our authorial voice or the voice of our omniscient narrator. So the author or narrator POV will determine which words fit best.

However, if we’re writing in a deeper POV, such as with 1st or a deeper 3rd person POV, the words we choose to use (outside of other characters’ dialogue) need to be in line with our POV character. If our POV character would never use a word, then we shouldn’t use it in their deep POV.

  • Would a teenager use a word like “hoity-toity”? Maybe, but probably less likely than other generations.
  • Or would an elderly person use newer slang like “spill the tea” rather than “gossip”? Again, maybe, but probably less likely than some other generations (unless the character is connected to the social/cultural group that originated the slang—such as Black Americans for this example—in which case the odds may be higher).

If we use words that don’t fit the character’s POV, the POV won’t feel as deep or true to the character. Words that don’t seem true to the character will instead feel like the author’s words.

At worst, if we make word choices that don’t fit our deep-POV character, those words could feel like as much of an authorial intrusion as if we—the author—broke the fourth wall to speak directly to the reader. Even if the effect on them isn’t quite that bad, readers could still be taken out of our story by the intrusion of an out-of-character word or phrase. Readers might experience cognitive dissonance, wonder how the character knows that word, or try to figure out if the character is using the word ironically or mockingly, etc.

How do our word choices affect our story and our writing? Click To TweetAs we discussed a few weeks ago, we also have to take into consideration how our POV affects the use of non-English words. If our POV character would think using a non-English word was no big deal, should we really italicize it like the usual rules say? Or should we find another approach to have their choice of words better blend with their POV? As with other aspects of word choice, there’s not necessarily a right or wrong answer, only what we think fits best for our intentions.

We might also think about a character’s POV when it comes to capitalization rules for our choice of words. For example, I need to think about my characters’ religious beliefs when deciding whether to capitalize the word “god” in their POV. Some of my characters would capitalize the word and others wouldn’t, so even with the same word choice, the implication can change, depending on the character and their perspective.

#2: Word Choice & Voice

Voice is often a nebulous concept, but as I’ve said before, voice is what invites readers to join the characters in their journey. No matter the POV we use, some aspects of our voice as an author carry through various elements of our writing:

  • We choose how many senses to evoke or how much we show vs. tell in descriptions.
  • We choose the types of characters, plots, premises, or themes we use in our stories.
  • We choose how strongly we develop our characters and their internal arcs.

However, while some aspects of the style of our story’s voice aren’t affected by our POV, other stylistic aspects are related to POV. So in some cases, the style of our story’s voice must reflect the literal voice or sense of a person behind the words, such as the voice of the deep-POV character or the narrator, rather than our own voice as author.

Whose voice should we use when choosing words in our story: ours or our characters? Click To TweetHow can we know whether to write in our voice or our character/narrator’s voice? In any story, we can break down different elements of writing for our sentences: dialogue, direct internal thoughts, actions, exposition, emotion, descriptions, etc. As we’ll get into next, dialogue (and direct internal thoughts, which follow the same rules) follows the voice of the character, but what about general narration, such as action, exposition, emotion, or description-oriented sentences?

If we’re using a shallower POV, our word choices in narration could follow our own voice or the voice of the character. But if we’re using a narrator or deep POV, the word choices would usually follow the voice of the person behind the words, the narrator or our POV character.

In fact, a significant aspect of how deep the POV will seem to readers is whether narrative sentences are in the POV character’s voice. If the narration is less tied to the POV character’s voice, the POV won’t feel as deep:

  • Shallower POV: The empty road stretched into the distance, emphasizing her loneliness.
  • Deeper POV: The emptiness of the road stretching into the distance gnawed at her gut. As if she needed the reminder of her loneliness.

The second example just sounds more like a specific character’s voice, so it automatically creates a deeper POV experience for readers. In addition, those lines sound like the character herself is revealing her vulnerabilities and emotions, which creates a deeper POV as well.

The word choices in the second example help create that sense of a specific voice:

  • “gnawed” feels very internal in this context
  • “as if” is a very voice-y phrase, like something the character would actually think or say
  • “reminder” is more internal-ish and less generic-ish than “emphasizing”

#3: Word Choice & Dialogue

Going along with word choice and voice, we also need to consider how word choice plays into dialogue. No matter what POV we use, the word choice in the dialogue of our characters should always reflect that character’s voice.

What should we keep in mind when determining the word choices of our story? Click To TweetFor example, the dialogue of a secondary character shouldn’t be in the protagonist’s voice, just because the protagonist is the POV character for the scene. Dialogue should be the exact quote of the speaker, not a paraphrase by the POV character or author. The only exception would be if quote marks aren’t used, letting readers know it’s just an approximation of the dialogue.

That means even with the shallowest POV, the dialogue for each of our characters should sound different to readers. Again, if the character wouldn’t use the word, it shouldn’t appear in their dialogue. As mentioned above, an elderly person and a teenager would not express themselves the same way in their dialogue.

The same goes for direct internal thoughts. Character internalization is essentially the ongoing internal monologue in the character’s head, so even though it’s silent, it would still follow the same rules as dialogue when it comes to voice and word choice.

What Should We Consider to Choose the “Right” Words?

In addition to the big writing elements of POV, voice, and dialogue, word choice affects our writing in many other ways…

Note that these questions below don’t all have a right or wrong answer. Some are just things to keep in mind as we develop our voice:

  • Should we use similes, metaphors, or other imagery-oriented words? Or should we stick to concrete descriptions?
  • Are the similes, metaphors, or other imagery specific to the POV character? (For example, my gargoyle character thinks in many stone-related phrases.)
  • Should we use words to evoke certain moods, writing styles, or tones?
  • Should we purposely reuse words to build themes or motifs?
  • Should we use rhetorical devices?
  • Should we use words for a certain rhythm?
  • Do we keep in mind that especially with sexy scenes, the word choice can affect how “hot” or explicit the story is considered?
  • Do we consider the effect of disturbing or shocking circumstances on readers and adjust the word choice to match our intent?
  • Do we use power words in our writing?

Common Word Choice Issues to Watch Out For

We also need to watch out for issues with our word choices:

  • Do our word choices lead readers to the wrong impression of story events? (True story: I once read a book with such vague and flowery word choices for a love scene that I couldn’t tell whether the couple had actually done the deed or not.)
  • Do our word choices undermine our characterization, such as if our characters seem more angry or less trustworthy than we intend?
  • Do we have unintentional alliteration or word echoes?
  • Do we overuse a word for a concept to the point of making the concept itself seem overdone?
  • Do we use imprecise words, such as unclear pronouns or articles that don’t specify what’s being referred to?
  • Do we use “weasel” words that weaken our writing?
  • Do we fall back on writing crutches, like cliché phrases?
  • Do we use adverbs when a stronger verb would be better?
  • Do we overuse characters’ proper names (especially in dialogue, when people rarely use each other’s names)?
  • Do we use odd/unusual dialogue tags that call attention to themselves?
  • Do we accidentally use the wrong homonym or homophone (its/it’s, their, there, they’re, etc.)?
  • Do we choose the wrong option for a commonly misused word (then/than, everyday/every day, etc.)

All that said, we often won’t choice the perfect word while drafting. When we’re in drafting mode, we might just reach for the first word close to what we’re trying to say, and that’s okay. Editing, specifically the steps of line editing and copy editing, is the time for us to really focus on our word choices to create the perfect impression for readers. *smile*

How much do you think about word choice while drafting? Or do you worry more at the editing phase? What aspects of word choice come naturally to you? Which aspects of word choice are harder for you? Do you have any insights or questions about word choice?

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Sam
Sam

Thanks for this blog post. Really helpful.

Star Ostgard
Star Ostgard

I think one thing that wasn’t addressed was dialect. Much as I love Mark Twain’s Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn, it’s horrific trying to read the books, and even with today’s writers, it often becomes an exercise in translating rather than reading. My personal preference is to use a few key words of dialect often enough to remind the reader of how the characters talk, but no more than that.

Cathy Cade

This really came home to me when I changed the POV of one short story from deepish third to first person. I had been using straightforward language to describe the (uneducated) person’s innner workings, but finding phrases that person actually would think in was quite a step further.

Lindsey Russell
Lindsey Russell

I’m still waiting for the opportunity to crop up to use ‘defenestration’ as a method of murder in a crime novel 🙂

Vivienne

I really enjoyed this post, and it’s timely owing to the fact that I’m just starting to edit my latest wip.
Thank you.

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