by Stephanie Bond

Your speaking voice—the way you express yourself verbally—is made up of different elements of tone, inflection, body language, and word choice. Similarly, your writing voice—the way you express yourself on paper—is also made up of corresponding elements of tone, inflection (using mechanics for emphasis), body language (character movement), and ta-da—word choice.

Your vocabulary determines your word choice, and typically, your spoken vocabulary will differ from your written vocabulary, as well it should. Regional accents, colloquialisms, slang, and plain old mispronunciations can hinder our spoken communication, but usually we can interpret the other person's misunderstanding and remedy the situation. Your written vocabulary, on the other hand, must be more foolproof to compensate for the lack of interaction between the writer and the reader. Word choice, therefore, in my humble opinion, should be the sharpest tool in your writing kit.

Word choice can lend different flavors to your characters and to your story:  southern, western, casual, sophisticated, literary, commercial, humorous, emotional, et cetera. Consider the following passages:

    Kate strode out onto the lanai, gulping her bloody Mary, her leg muscles still jerking from her two-mile run. She wiped at the sweat pooled above her eyebrows with a paper towel, then dropped into a wrought iron chair.

    Savannah strolled out onto the back porch, sipping her raspberry iced tea, her arm muscles still humming from hanging laundry on the clothesline. She dabbed at the perspiration pooled above her eyebrows with a cotton handkerchief, then eased into a glider.

Do you form a different mental picture with each of the passages? See how the words chosen for the first example accumulate to portray a high-energy character:  Kate (short, strong name with hard consonants), strode (implies quick movement), lanai (sophisticated term for deck or patio), gulping (impatient), bloody Mary (hard drink), leg muscles jerking (overworked), two-mile run (yuppie exercise), wiped (quick movement), sweat (more "crude" term), paper towel (disposable), dropped (quick movement), wrought iron chair (hard, cold).

Now, see how words chosen for the second example build to portray a softer character:  Savannah (long, soft consonants), strolled (leisurely), back porch (more down-home), sipping (casual), raspberry iced-tea (wholesome), arm muscles humming (melodious), hanging laundry on the clothesline (beloved chore since she probably has a clothes dryer), dabbed (gentle), perspiration (more "civilized" term), cotton handkerchief (feminine), eased (fluid), glider (fun, relaxed).

So, the art of word choice isn't merely choosing a more sophisticated word, but rather choosing the correct word, be it noun, verb, or adjective, to create a harmonious blend among connecting words. Consequently, developing a larger vocabulary will enable you to choose more wisely, so every writer strive to expand his/her vocabulary. How? A few suggestions:

Read. Read fiction, read non-fiction, read newspapers, read periodicals, read poetry.

Listen. Listen to talk radio, listen to conversations between professionals, between children, between teenagers, between couples, between siblings.

Watch. Watch financial news programs, watch learning channels, watch a play.

Research. Utilize resource manuals—keep a dictionary handy and look up words you don't know the meaning of as you encounter them. Use a hand-thesaurus or the thesaurus in your word processor to help provide a better choice for words you find yourself repeating too often in your writing.

Expand. Buy a book or tape program specifically designed to widen your vocabulary. Such programs typically require you to commit a new word to memory and use it throughout the day.

Invent. Can’t find the exact word you need? Make up one by combining two words with a hyphen (She was neck-deep in contracts.), or by giving a common word a new prefix or suffix (Her body sang with indignance). As long as it fits the context, your editor will probably leave the word alone. Jerry Seinfeld made a huge impact on pop culture by making up words and coining new phrases.

Do your critique partners write comments like "vague" or "confusing" on your work? Has an editor said your story doesn’t have the "magic" she’s looking for? The culprit could be your word choice. Review your work-in-progress (read aloud) and pay special attention to your written vocabulary. Remember, we’re wordsmiths, so go out there and smith those words, darn it!   


Reprinted with permission from Stephanie Bond's website,  Original article appeared in The Galley.  Stephanie Bond writes romantic comedies for Harlequin Temptation Blaze, Too Hot to Sleep, 6/2000; and for St. Martin’s Press, Our Husband, 11/2000. 

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Copyright 1999, S. Bond

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