Writing Excuses 12.11: Diction
Key points: Diction, word choice, how do you pick the right word? Don’t try too hard while you are writing. Fix it in revision. What does this sentence mean, why is it here? Make it more specific. Don’t go overboard! Make sure you use the word with the right meaning. Keep a list. Watch for terminology. Think about simplicity versus more specificity. What’s important for the character? Don’t let the experts bury you. Lyrical, easy to say out loud. Watch emphasis! Unintentional alliteration and rhymes can make it hard to read. Is your style transparent, windowpane prose, or something more stylized? [Bracket] overused words to help with revision. Limit your favorite phrases. Use text-to-speech to listen to your prose.
[Mary] Season 12, Episode 11.
[Brandon] This is Writing Excuses, Diction.
[Mary] 15 minutes long.
[Mary Anne] Because you’re in a hurry.
[Wesley] And we’re not that smart.
[Brandon] I’m Brandon.
[Mary] I’m Mary.
[Mary Anne] I’m Mary Anne.
[Wesley] And I’m Wesley.
[Brandon] And we’re going to talk about word choice. Which, unless I’m wrong, I don’t think we’ve ever done a podcast, across 12 seasons, on…
[Brandon] Picking the specific word that you want to use. I thought it was about time. So, let’s talk about dish… Diction. How do you pick the right word?
[Mary] So we’ve touched on this in varying ways when we’ve been talking about coming up with a first person narrator or a third person narrator. That there is a context to every word that you choose, that there is an attitude towards it. So one of the things that I try to find what I’m… And this is, most of the time, like word choice just kind of happens as you’re writing, but then you got a sentence that’s just clunky. You come back to it. I’ll say that most of the time, you shouldn’t actually think about diction too much, too hard, while you’re writing because it can stop you. But when there…
[Brandon] This is a revision thing, mostly, for me.
[Mary] But what I’ll do is I will look at what I want that… What that sentence actually means. Every sentence is in a novel for two reasons. In dialogue, there’s the reason that the character has for saying that thing, the thing that they are trying to do. Then, for the author, there’s the plot reason that that sentence is there. So what you’re looking at is the area of intention for those two things. Like, for instance, “What did you say?” That could mean “I can’t hear you.” That could mean “You didn’t just say that thing to me.” That could mean “I am really surprised.” It could mean a lot of different things. So what is it that that sentence means? Then, I look at ways that I can make it more specific.
[Brandon] Specificity’s a big part of this. I remember when I was editing… I was working on Wheel of Time. I said, “It was a wooden table.” Harriet, my editor, said, “Mention the type of wood, because it takes no more words, but gives a more powerful image.” When you can use one word that does those things, gives a more powerful image without expanding your story, it’s often a good choice.
[Mary Anne] I kind of want to push back against that, though. Because I think writers can get a little precious about it. I mean, I would agree generally that it’s good to look at those words and consider them, but I think sometimes there’s a value in just saying… This comes up with skin color all the time, and it makes me nuts. Right? Where people are like, “Oh, I wanna… I’m going to describe her skin as coffee colored or chestnut colored or whatever.” I’m like, “Just say brown.” Just say brown and move on, because you’re just getting yourself into trouble with the food metaphors, first of all…
[Mary Anne] And the brownness, like the exact shade of brownness, of her skin is probably not that important. So… I don’t know, I think about… I look at stylists and the way that… I’m not a heavily stylistic writer, but if I read somebody like Gertrude Stein, right? A rose is a rose is a rose. There is a power to the repetition of simple words, I think. So it… I just… There’s… I guess I would say there’s a whole big toolbox for us to use. One of them is reaching for the specific, but another might be the simple.
[Wesley] Also, one thing to note is that words have very specific meaning, and sometimes we interchange words without really thinking about it. For example, a port and a harbor have very specific… They’re different things. A harbor’s where you kind of store boats, and a port’s kind of where you offload cargo. Or like a cave and a cavern are actually different things. So what I’ve been doing a lot more recently is I look at the words that I take for granted, that I just use in everyday language, and suddenly they don’t mean exactly what you think they mean. So when you start going over your sentences and your words, you have to be a lot more specific on what each word means for that sentence.
[Brandon] I keep a list of those, kind of… The big one that I… Translucent and transparent. If you can’t even say it, what is the difference? I… Like when someone said that to me, I’m like, “Oh, yeah. One you can see entirely all the way through, and one only let’s some light through. But I was using those words interchangeably, and have, for a decade of my writing.
[Wesley] Well, like… I got crushed this. There’s a few things that you have to get right when it comes to writing fiction. You gotta get your guns right. You gotta get your horses right. Get your terminology right. So a magazine is not a clip. The parts of a gun are important. So when you write certain things, make sure you know exactly what that… That’s the right word for that sentence.
[Brandon] Though, gun and clip, if there’s a… I agree. They… But sometimes you have a character who doesn’t know guns. They call a magazine a clip or something like that, and the gun nuts go crazy, but you’re like, “This person doesn’t know.” So as long as you’re doing it consciously. You gotta be in control of these things.
[Mary] I find that I’ll do things like have my character say, “And then they put the thingy in the…”
[Mary] I’ve actually just like left that in. I had put it in as a placeholder, and I went back and I’m like, “Oh, yeah. She doesn’t know either.” And I left it in. I think that’s what Mary Anne is talking about a little bit, when you don’t have to reach for the really specific word. But you wanna… What we’re always talking about is reaching for the right word. Is this a moment that you want to go for simplicity, or is this a moment where your character or the moment requires something that is more specific? Trying to figure out how to make that choice… That’s one of the things that is so difficult. So I think one of the things that you’re looking at when you’re trying to make that choice… It’s like, “Do I want something simple? Do I want something more specific?” is again, going back to the attitude of the character, what is important to the character in this moment? If you’re getting it like a rose is a rose is a rose, that is all about… That area of intention is about the essence of a rose. It doesn’t matter what you call it. A rose is a rose is a rose is a rose. That’s a place where going for the simple, the essence, is going to be more powerful. Whereas if you are tal… Having a character who is thinking about all the g… Different varieties of roses, then they might be more like, “A cabbage rose is a rose, and an English rose is a rose.” They might list all of those. So that’s, for me, is thinking about the area of intention.
[Mary Anne] I think writers can get led astray by their experts, right? So military stuff is, I think, one big area of this. Another, for me, I had a medical protagonist for my recent thing, and I had a scene where someone had gotten an abdominal wound, they were trying to deal with it in the middle of a triage, a bomb situation. So I’d written a couple sentences describing what this young doctor was doing. I sent it to some doctor friends, and I said, “Can you just check this and let me know how did I do?” They wrote back, and like one of them had written me three paragraphs of information on abdominal wounds, but then had sent it to a surgeon friend of his. The surgeon friend wrote me back three pages with pictures. So I learned a lot about abdominal wounds, but I ended up looking at my scene, and I was like, “Oh, yeah, I should change this one line to be like… Oh, she’s going to need light or she wouldn’t be able to do that.” That’s important. Okay. Most of what they gave me did not and should not have been in the scene.
[Brandon] This is dangerous for new writers to think about too much sometimes, because of that sort of thing, but also because this is where purple prose comes from, right? They think, “I can’t use the word rose. I have to describe this rose, and it has to be a velvet rose with one drop of water glistening as it rolls down…” Suddenly, you’ve got purple prose.
[Mary Anne] Right. Like, when Shakespeare talks about damasked roses, he gives you that specific of damasked because he’s trying to say something about having both red and white. Like there’s a reason why that modifier is in there. It matters. It’s not just a random edition.
[Brandon] Let’s go ahead and stop for our book of the week. Wesley, you’re going to tell us about Sins of Empire.
[Wesley] I am really excited for this book. Brian McClellan as a wonderful series called, I think, the Powder Mage series.
[Wesley] Starts with The Promise of Blood. Anyway, it’s based… It’s a secondary world fantasy where there’s flintlock magic. It’s one of the more original kind of secondary world fantasies that I’ve read in a long, long time. Now he has a new series out starting with the Sins of Empire. The series is called Gods of Blood and Powder. It’s coming out March 7th. I don’t know too much about it, but I’m really looking forward to reading it.
[Brandon] So, Brian is one of my former students. So I’m very partial to Brian. I can highly recommend the Powder Mage books as well. They are fantastic.
[Wesley] They’re fantastic.
[Mary Anne] What was the first book again?
[Wesley] Promise of Blood.
[Mary Anne] Thanks.
[Brandon] All right. So. Are certain words more lyrical for you than other ones? Do you ever make the choice based on what’s more lyrical or what’s easier to say out loud?
[Mary Anne] Illuminate. I like illuminate.
[Mary] Phantasmagoria. I love the way that goes. But this gets back to something with… That Mary Anne was talking about the damasked rose. That Shakespeare, because he was often writing in iambic pentameter, that one of the things that he was thinking about is where the emphasis on the word was. Sometimes this subtle thing is actually what is causing a sentence to go off, and you can’t even figure out why it’s awkward. But a lot of times, it’s because the emphasis is in the wrong place. Let me give you an example, which is my entire name. Technically speaking, the emphasis on my last name should be on the second syllable. KoWAL. It’s Ukrainian, and the emphasis lands on the second syllable. But it sounds stupid when you say my entire name. Mary Robinette KoWAL. Mary Robinette KOwal flows more in the English language. So when I say my full name, I put the emphasis on that first syllable. Now I can do that because that’s my name and I can make those changes. In prose, I would actually end up swapping out for a different word to get the emphasis to land in a place that was more fluid.
[Brandon] How does reading and being a voice actor influence your writing?
[Mary] Very much so. The difference between prose that is well written versus prose that is very pedestrian or clunky, in my ability to narrate it, is huge. One of the things that I’ve become very aware of, and this is one of the ways you can control that, is punctuation. But the other is things that suddenly make it very difficult… Alliteration. If you have alliteration and it’s unintentional alliteration, it makes it well-nigh unto impossible. Sometimes having nested rhymes that you are not planning on having…
[Brandon] Really distracting.
[Mary] Very distracting. Seanan McGuire… And I love her books, but she is so influenced by Shakespeare that she will sometimes end scenes with a rhyming couplet. I’ve asked her, and she’s like, “Sometimes that’s intentional, and a lot of times it’s not.” I have to bury them. Because otherwise, it sounds like I’m suddenly reciting poetry. So, as a writer, if I catch that, if I catch, “Oh, I’ve got an unintentional rhyme here,” I’m going to go back and I’m going to swap out a word.
[Mary Anne] I’ve been really surprised… This year, I started writing for Tremontaine, which is Ellen Kushner’s shared world through Serial Box. The copy editor on Tremontaine checks all that and catches it and flags it and has us look at it. What has been surprising to me is I have been a published writer for 25 years, I’ve done books with HarperCollins, Random House, Penguin. This is the first copy editor I’ve ever dealt with that has done this. Which perhaps speaks to a slipping of editorial standards across the board.
[Brandon] My editor’s really good at this. Which is great. Moshe. I’m… I am weakest in this area. I shoot for what I call Orwellian prose. If you read essays by George Orwell, he talks about this idea of prose that is a windowpane through which you can see the story. Prose that does not draw attention to itself. It doesn’t mean I don’t like beautiful prose. I love beautiful prose. But I have chosen a style for myself that is I’m going to try not to distract you. Except maybe like the first paragraph, I’ll occas… Of a scene, I’ll occasionally throw one in there. But I want…
[Mary Anne] [inaudible]
[Brandon] You to be able to see through the prose beautifully. Because of that, I do a… I’m just… This is my weakest point. I’ll often have pet words that I’ll use over and over again. I will use sometimes the wrong word, like… And all of this stuff. I have a good editor who catches the unintentional rhymes, the unintentional innuendos that you don’t intend…
[Mary] Oh, yeah.
[Brandon] He will often say things like… I’ll be like, “This person was so annoying.” He’s like, “Do you mean annoying or did you mean aggravating? Because the context sounds like aggravating.” I’m like, “Oh. That’s… Those are different words. Yes, they mean different things.”
[Brandon] Thank you, Moshe. One thing we often do with my writing is… I get this hit list. If you have troubles, a hit list of words you overuse…
[Mary] I have a list of those.
[Brandon] If you just do a search and replace in Microsoft Word or whatever you use for that word and then change it to that word with brackets around it, when you’re doing a revision, it will pop up in the prose. You’ll be like, “Oh.” You can see “Have I used this three times in this chapter?”
[Mary Anne] Nice.
[Brandon] “I have. Let’s change them.” Or, you’ll be like, “Do I really need it here? Yes, I do. Let’s take off the brackets.” And things like this. You can just search for brackets in your piece and see if you missed any of them. It works really well for me.
[Wesley] [garbled] Brandon. I like my prose to be invisible. I want the reader to just be in the story. Again, kind of like my weakness as well. One of the things that I’ve been doing more recently is like I have phrases that… Like early on, I think I had one book where I had somebody eating a punch like five times. The eating a punch was written like five times in the book. At one point, you’ve gotta watch for things like that. So definitely, do your searches. Like, I have certain rules, like certain words like suddenly. I can only put in like a couple of times, or like three times in a book. Any more than that, then you gotta start getting some of them out.
[Mary Anne] I was a little embarrassed at how often the proofreader caught somebody raising an eyebrow in my book.
[Wesley] I like after all for some reason. I don’t know why. But one thing I’ve been doing more recently is I do the text-to-speech, where suddenly… I just said suddenly…
[Wesley] So like I now, I listen to entire like pages at a time. I close my eyes, and I just kind of listen to how the prose kind of flows. You’re going to catch a lot of things that you never thought about before in terms of repetition and how things come off, like is this construction clunky? There’s so many things that you can catch just by the ear.
[Mary Anne] I think women writers are actually particularly… I’m not saying all women writers, but something that I’ve noticed in myself and others, is we are prone to put in modifiers. So, words like just or things that kind of make the prose more hesitant. Still.
[Brandon] It is perhaps very sexist, but they do call that feminine speech pattern in linguistics, because of the socialization that we have in our society.
[Mary Anne] So I think it’s just something to watch for. I mean, again, like if you have a character and you want to put it in that character’s voice that she is socialized that way and speaks that way, I think that can be very effective. But if you’re doing it throughout the book, then that’s probably a problem.
[Brandon] I way overuse a little and a bit.
[Mary Anne] Me too.
[Mary] Can I just jump back briefly to invisible prose? Because I do want to flag that this is a fashion thing. Because the… Here’s a very good example of this. So Jane Austen, in her day, was writing invisible prose. It was the prose that she… It was the way people sounded around her. In the Glamour and… The Glamorous History books, I would put in phrases from Jane Austen. Like entire sentences, I would occasionally just drop one in. Every single time, my editor and then my copy editor would flag it as being awkward. Which was, I have to say, tremendously satisfying to say, “Stet. This is Jane Austen.”
[Mary] But the thing is that the reason that they flagged that is because in modern day, it is no longer invisible prose, even though I was trying to write in her style.
[Brandon] That’s fascinating.
[Mary Anne] Le Guin actually has some great examples. She has pages in Steering the Craft from Austen and others. I have my students go through, and my students have a lot of trouble because the sentence structures are so complex compared to what they’re used to writing. The main issue is that she’ll have a clause connected to another clause… I mean, it’s all logical and it all makes sense, but it takes up three quarters of a page and it’s one sentence.
[Brandon] Now I will say that we’re doing an entire podcast coming up later this month on how to write beautiful prose. So I’m going to cap this session here. I’m going to let Mary give us some homework on diction.
[Mary] Right. So, what we’ve been talking about is how to choose the right word, and the area of intention, and all of these things. So what I’m going to ask you to do is to take something that you have recently written and go through… We’re just going to look at dialogue on this one, just to make it easy on you. I say easy. Mwahaha. As an exercise, what I want you to do is, I want you to replace all of the dialogue, and you’re not allowed to use any of the existing words in those sentences. This is to force you to think about what these sentences actually mean. I will grant you that you are allowed to use the articles and the prepositions, but no verbs, no nouns. The only ones that I’m going to allow you are like names or a MacGuffin that is very specific to that world. Otherwise, I want you to replace every single word and get deep into why you are picking that word.
[Mary Anne] Can I just add one more quick exercise?
[Brandon] Yes. Go for it.
[Mary Anne] My students love this one. It’s so frustrating. You write a scene in sentences that are all seven words or less. Then you write the same scene in one long sentence. It’s really good for making you think about sentence structure. It’s super frustrating trying to write in seven words or less sentences. Which is good for you.
[Brandon] Okay. This has been Writing Excuses. You’re out of excuses. Now go write.