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Monday, August 15, 2005

Choosing Understandable Words

Once you find a topic to write about—something that inspires you, something that you feel strongly about—how do you convey it? Let's get down to the nuts and bolts: WORDS.

YOU NEED TO CHOOSE WORDS THAT ARE BOTH UNDERSTANDABLE AND VIBRANT.

Understanding:

You're a writer, the choice of words is yours. Start with the Who, What, Where, When, Why and How. Be specific. Not "a sad girl," but "a suicidal 14-year-old soccer player." Not "a sunny neighborhood," but "a tree-less suburb of monotonous cookie-cutter development homes."

Arrange your words with care. "Meet," "kiss," "argue," "make up" conveys a typical boy-meets-girl love story. But "kiss," "make up," "argue," "meet," conveys a couple who breaks up, and one of them meets someone new. Words and phrases should be ordered Action--Reaction, Action--Reaction.

Words have specific cultural connotations. A car's "boot" in Great Britain is a car "trunk" in the US. Also, be careful about the *feelings* certain words convey, not just their literal meanings.

Good grammar skills are a must. No exception. You can't write clear text if your grammar is so atrocious, inconsistent, or sloppy that the reader isn't sure what you're saying. One great resource is Daily Grammar. Each lesson is extremely easy to understand and very short, made for grade-school or junior high school level. Even if your grammar is good, it's always wise to brush up on terms and nuances you might have forgotten. Another option is to dig out your old junior high school grammar text and skim through.

Don't repeat yourself unless you have a good reason. The human brain is very quick to note repetition, and your readers will assume that anything repeated must be important to the plot. Mystery author Agatha Christie never repeated key phrases or observations, because she knew that the reader will pick up on anything mentioned twice, and if it's the key to the murder, then where's the surprise?

Isn't it annoying to read a scene where the author uses a certain word or phrase constantly? "She was a spectacular actress...His spectacular fried shrimp...The girl's spectacular dress...The butler's spectacular staff..." You get the picture. Microsoft Word has a Find feature so you can see how often you use certain words, and change them.

I'll discuss VIBRANT writing in the next article.

Exercise:

Edit something you've written. Use the following checklist:

1) Did you include the Who, What, Where, When, Why and How?
2) Does the sequence of words and phrases convey what you want it to? Action--Reaction?
3) Check that your words convey the right feeling and meaning.
4) Check your grammar.
5) Go through every single word and see how often it's repeated. Some words (like pronouns) you don't have a choice, but how about certain nouns, verbs, adverbs, adjectives?

Next: Choosing Vibrant Words

NOTE: Information in this article is taken from the classic "Techniques of the Selling Writer" by Dwight V. Swain.

Back to Articles from Swain

2 comments:

  1. You shared this concept: action-reaction in a mentoring appointment. This has proved to be an easy-to-remenber help.

    ReplyDelete
  2. Thanks so much Mary! It's nice to know this was helpful.

    ReplyDelete

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