Monday, September 2, 2013


Word Choice
by Lisa Lickel

At a recent writer’s club meeting, a fellow author took me to task on my word choices, right from the beginning of my new novel in progress. I always have more stuff to learn, and always will, but I’m also in a position to share my experience with why I choose to use the words I do.
If we agree that writing is an art form, we can borrow the analogy of using a color palette from visual art. Some visual art, pictures, are best seen in multiple hues, others in monochromes; some in stark contrasting schemes, and some in plein air with all the pain, struggle, sweat and blood staining the pages. You might see where I’m going with this: the above parlances can relate to genre, yes? From Rembrandt to Jackson Pollack, there are many styles of visual art, just like there are many styles of written word art. No matter the genre, authors want to layer their work to create a texture unique to the story. How do we do that in 2D, black and white? We use a rich palette of word choice.
Art of any kind is best appreciated from a multi-sensory perspective. The fruit in the bowl of the painting is so real I can taste and smell it; the passage of the book so well-described that I feel the tension in the air, the unspoken body language of the characters. In the first questioned passage of my work in progress, I use the word “rescued” to describe an act in the opening scene. The character is driving in a blizzard and slides off the road, getting stuck in a ditch. She manages to exit the vehicle, but reaches back inside to rescue her bag.

Why would I use that term in that scenario when grabs, takes, picks up, reaches for, slip, tug, pull, yank, and so forth can be equally handy? What image or what sense do I want the reader to take from this word picture?

Anyone? This is a person who’s trying to control a situation that is, ultimately, beyond her ability to control. She can grab her bag, which is a casual word—you grab your bag on the way out of the door to run an errand. She can take her bag, but so can anyone any time; she can pluck up her bag, like one would do from the baggage claim at the airport; reaches for is one of those words that never seems complete. Why would she feel as though she’s rescuing her bag? It’s one action she can perform when she’s helpless about other aspects of her situation. It sets a certain tone that rescue is necessary, if not by her, then for her. Why is she out in this dangerous situation at all?

Make your words count in order to create a feeling, a specific sort of tension, or the perfect subtle foreshadow.
Another questioned word choice, the author noted, looking over half-glasses, was to choose one way to describe my character. In the first fifty pages I had used at least four different ways, by three different people, to note a man’s skin color. I was advised to choose one and stick with it.
That would be sad, if I believed this author really expected me to use the same word throughout an entire novel to refer to a man of mixed racial parentage in a lily white red-neck community. Even black coffee has a lot of words to describe not only its color but its aroma, its flavor, its warmth. Descriptions on the labels range from black silk to robust to dark roast. A man who’s half-black might refer to himself as light-skinned or dark depending on how he wants to be seen; a girl who’s afraid of him might call him black or stained; a woman who’s in love with him might call him caramel or mocha. Someone who didn’t know his heritage, merely that a very tan-looking man in winter in a community of Scandinavians might wonder about his heritage—maybe he’s Italian?

What do all those things imply? Again, I’m setting the stage. How do I want you to feel about these people? What images are invoked by these words: black, dark, dirt, caramel, mocha, Italian, light, tan? Under what circumstances might you use these words to describe the same person? Keep your characters unique by letting them see things differently.
Look around you and practice using as many words as you can to describe one thing in your line of sight. One helpful resource that’s more fun than a thesaurus is Word Hippo:
Happy creating!
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