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In the Introduction to Fifteen Blinks, I mentioned that people blink less frequently when they are interested. The difference between engaging writing and dull writing is diction—voice—how the words sound in your head and out loud.
Let’s get all multimedia up here and use video to illustrate. Compare the following two videos. Take a mental note of the types of words each speaker is using.
From Ferris Bueller’s Day Off:
and from Dead Poets Society:
The first video is filled with academic, Latinate language, with a pop or two of some Anglo-Saxon. (Read more about the difference between Latinate and Anglo-Saxon diction here.)
alleviate, tariff, revenue, federal government, sank, depression, revenue, voodoo
The second video has some clichés, Latinate language, Anglo-Saxon language, slang, and even onomatopoeia.
Seize the day, DING, food for worms, breathing, cold, die, peruse, haircuts, hormones, invincible, world is their oyster, full of hope, one iota, gonna, fertilizing daffodils, legacy, extraordinary
Which diction is more interesting?
“Avoid clichés like the plague.” Clichés are like shorthand for writers. Sometimes it makes sense to use them, because the reader will except the metaphor as an idiom. A cliché is better than “new” imagery that makes the reader question your better judgment or sanity.* My husband’s family has a motto: “Work smarter, not harder.” Sometimes using a cliché is being smart; other times it’s lazy writing. If one of your characters is a bit dull, then let him speak in a cliché once or twice. Outside of dialogue, use sparingly.
*Read about the Bad Sex writing award over at The Guardian for a laugh and cautionary tale (NSFW)
Perhaps you’ve heard of the phrase “purple language” or “flowery language” before. When every other word was looked up in the thesaurus, it’s obvious that you are trying to impress the reader, and we are pretty sure that you are just overcompensating. See my references to Christopher Paolini’s debut here.
Diction is often overdone in sentimental fiction. It’s also overdone in classrooms. I was hoping for some good examples of bad imagery when I saw a Google result titled “How Not to Suck at Writing—Imagery.” Instead, I got some bad examples of “good” imagery. The examples of “good” imagery in that post come across as a Mad-Libs gone terribly, terribly wrong. If you take a writing class and the teacher praises this kind of writing, ask for your money back and buy a copy of Stephen King’s On Writing. Money better spent.
But read King with a grain of salt if you do happen to pick up On Writing. He says things like this:
“Any word you have to hunt for in a thesaurus is the wrong word. There are no exceptions to this rule.”
…Apparently a drunk and high Mr. King is of a more sober mind than I, bearer and rearer of children, because I forget words all the time, and thesauruses are a great aid in digging up vocabulary which is half-buried in toddler talk and animal noises. Unless my husband is around. Then I forgo the thesaurus, speaking utter nonsense to him until I remember the word I was trying to think of. It’s usually accompanied by grandiose hand gestures:
“What’s that word for when… You know how… When you feel like… I think it starts with a P…”
Forgetting about Diction
If you don’t pay a whole lot of attention to diction, if you don’t worry about being fancy, your writing will probably come across as conversational, sort of like this blog. Your writing isn’t going to be very exciting—it’s going to be invisible. Everybody can write conversationally of they write the way they speak.
That’s why overdoing it is usually the problem with new (and some seasoned) writers. They want to stand out. Problem is, people notice them standing out for all the wrong reasons and they praise them for it. I see many writers try to get away with purple language by submitting their work as “literary,” when their work isn’t literary at all—it just hasn’t been edited for diction.
Getting diction right
The great news is that getting diction right is incredibly simple. You ready for it?
Read out loud.
Controversial, right? Imagine actually reading your written text out loud! Why, someone might hear you! You might hear yourself!
If you start shaking uncontrollably at the thought of reading aloud, even to an audience of one, then you can download a text-reader that will read your text out for you. And it’s a computer, so you don’t even have to share your work with another human being. Because, you know, that would be terrible, getting someone else’s opinion.
Eh, sorry for the snark. Some people really love text-to-speech and use it. I’m the cheapest person alive, so I choose the free version—my own vocal chords. If someone here uses text-to-speech software, please share your recommendations!
When writing something short—a poem, flash fiction, or memoir vignette—every word needs to count. Diction is so important, I’m giving you a pretty lengthy exercise this time, so you can see good diction for yourself. Optional writing prompt at the end.
- Dig out, look up, or take a short story/poem/speech that you absolutely love and think is well written. Hit for between 300 and 800 words, or 3-5 minutes speaking time.
- You’ll read it or listen to it at least three times, listing nouns, adjectives, verbs, and phrases from the text.
- The first time, make a note of words or phrases that are fresh or poignant.
- The second time, make note of diction that is overdone (too flowery) or obnoxious (this includes clichés). It’s okay to move things from the first list into this list.
- The third time, take a note of the remaining nouns, adjectives, and verbs, dividing them by their parts of speech.
- Take a look at that third list (from step #5). Which words fall into that category because they are “boring”? Which ones are there because they are subtle, rather than overdone?
- Now look at the second list (from step #4). Take the list of overdone or flowery language and rewrite them to make them simpler (or more Anglo-Saxon).
- Then rewrite the clichés to make them more original. Don’t have a list of clichés? Then you picked your text wisely! Go find 5–10 clichés and rewrite them.
- As for that first list? You have two choices. Admire it from afar and never think of it again, or choose one word or phrase as a writing prompt and write a Fifteen-Blinker on it.
The next time you come across something particularly horrible, repeat this exercise (1-9) with that unfortunate work, and rewrite it to make it better.
Remember, you don’t become a better writer by criticizing other writers. You become a better writer by reading and rewriting, rewriting, rewriting, rewriting.