We speak using words. People understand us. Why not just write how we speak? Have you ever written a text or email thinking the person on the other end would laugh along with you, only to get a reply that indicated an opposite reaction? In this post, I share word lessons for fiction, nonfiction, and everyday communications.
Let’s get started.
Words can be powerful and meaningless at the same time. If you want to convey the right meaning, you need to consider several factors discussed in this post. If you want your readers to slide through your words, versus stumble or stop in an effort to understand, then you need to use the right word and put them in the right word sequences: you know, those pesky sentences and paragraphs.
Before you dive into sentences and paragraphs, let’s talk about words from four perspectives.
Words Have Meaning
Of course they do. However, there are words out there that have more than one meaning (e.g, by definition, by culture, by location) and words we can use when we don’t know the right word. In this section, we will explore
Even if you write only fiction or only nonfiction, I believe the following will add to your writing skills.
My personal history with selecting the right words based on actual meaning isn’t great. I feel the word on the tip of my tongue and my brain delivers something sounds like it could be close. I don’t know if it is due to my mild case of dyslexia or just a mental block when it comes to words, but I have learned to rely on my dictionary even when I am confident I have the right word and/or right spelling.
Now that I have confessed a weakness, is it time for you to admit you might not know everything there is to know about the words you choose to use? Yes. Because you might be doing one of the following:
- Confusing two words that sound similar.
- Using a word your family has always used, only to find out that it isn’t in the dictionary.
- Using a word you always thought meant one thing, when in actuality, it means something else, depending on your culture or your readers’ culture.
- There could be a synonym you hadn’t thought of that would make your message more clear.
Now that you know you have the perfect word that will help your readers understand what is being said, ask yourself the following questions.
- Is it a word that your character would know?
- Is it a word that the subject matter experts in your discipline would use?
- Will your audience know the word?
In Fiction …
One of my characters in my draft Ancient Souls: Resurrection, lived a sheltered life. However, one of her hobbies was to collect words, words you wouldn’t expect to hear from someone growing up in her “world.” So, I can give her words to say and think that I wouldn’t give to another character and that would be okay because one of her quirks is word collection.
That covers the characters, what about your audience? If you are writing to a young audience, you might need to choose a word or phrase that, as an adult and professional writer, you wouldn’t use because you have outgrown that word. With that said, if there is a word your reader needs to learn, be it in a fictional scene or a nonfictional instruction, use the most appropriate word. Then, include a way to convey that word’s meaning: indirectly or directly.
In Nonfiction …
With nonfiction writing, you might find that a word used in one discipline isn’t used exactly the same way in another discipline. In the world of web development, prod, short for production, means the server that is hosting your public facing website. By definition, production means, “the action of making or manufacturing from components or raw materials, or the process of being so manufactured.” A completed website lives on the production server. Hmm.
Because prod and production are accepted words for a web server, I use them because my audience needs to hear them or might expect to hear them. If you can’t use a word that a profession finds acceptable, be sure to include an insight as to why you are deviating. At the same time, don’t assume that your reader shares your understanding of the discipline.
We all have word baggage, missing or otherwise. If the word you have chosen is critical to understanding the concepts, facts, or processes being conveyed, find a way to include a definition or explanation even if you believe your readers understand as you do.
We all do it. We say, “thing,” bet it in fiction and nonfiction writing. Maybe it’s laziness. Maybe it’s because we’ve drawn a blank and can’t recall what the “thing” is. Maybe you honestly don’t know what the “thing” is.
So, what is a thing? By definition, it means “an object that one need not, cannot, or does not wish to give a specific name to.” Examples of other words used when we can’t think of the actual word: doodad, doohickey, gizmo. There are many words, like these, used to convey the unknown.
When it come to writing, bottom line, don’t use words like these unless your character or narrator is meant not to know what the “thing” is. Don’t cheat your reader out of understanding what you truly meant to say. And, if you can’t think of the word that fits, then you don’t know what you are trying to say and should stop and rethink.
Why? What happens when you use “thing” instead of the actual word or phrase that is more precise? Your reader will interpret the vague word and you might not like what they come up with. How will you know they didn’t glean your vague meaning? An unfriendly comment or review?
The dictionary needs to be your best friend. Trust me on this one.
Returning to my opening about text and email messages being interpreted differently than intended, how do you convey tone when you write? Tone as in sound and tone as in attitude.
“Don’t take that tone with me.” Who hasn’t been scolded similarly at least once in their life? Do you remember how you felt? For me it was, “What?! What tone?” Usually, my parents didn’t bother to explain, and I believe it’s because they didn’t know how. It wasn’t my words or my voice inflection or my gestures. Perhaps it was a little bit of everything, or just the mood they were in. So, I tended to speak carefully growing up.
Since then, I’ve matured and learned, as I assume you have done. Or, maybe you’re still young enough to receive the raised eyebrow from your mother and are left wondering about your mistake. Who knows.
Either way, imagine a conversation that tone played a role. Now, write it down, digitally or on paper. How would you convey the tone in that oral exchange? Were angry, happy, sad, etc.?
In fiction, you would say as much. Although, you wouldn’t tell it, you would show it. Show, don’t tell, is a lesson needing a full post.
In nonfiction, there isn’t a place for attitude, be it good or not. If you feel the need to be snarky as you explain how to do something, go ahead. Then go back and delete the snark. Sometimes it helps to vent frustrations so that the real message can come through.
In everyday, written communication such as texts and emails, we’ve taken to using emoticons to convey tone. We’ve actually started composing sentences in emoticons. Well, I haven’t, but I’ve heard about it and seen it. We aren’t talking about emoticons right now. The point is, think about your words and how you are feeling when you write them. Remember, unless you are composing a piece of fiction, tone and attitude aren’t likely to come through.
With that said, I will make a confession. I’ve taken to including phrases to convey my feelings, such as “heavy sigh.” Yes. I’m little geeky and I would only do that with friendly colleagues, not the boss.
To Repeat or Not to Repeat
There is debate in the writing world about the use of synonyms. I recently reviewed some technical instructions that left my head spinning from all the different words the author used to talk about the same thing. As I silently ranted at the author for giving me a headache, I recalled one of my fiction writing lessons: don’t repeat words. I wondered if the author had a background in fiction writing.
I provide an example of how not to repeat in my Sentence Salad in Fictional Writing post. Please check it out. In the mean time, unless there is meaning (e.g., poetic, tempo, emphasis) in deliberately repeating a word, here’s my position on synonyms and repeats when it comes to
In fiction …
Don’t use the same word (e.g., noun, adjective, adverb, verb) multiple times within a two to three sentence, or even paragraph, range. Don’t rely solely on synonyms, either.
Find a different way to paint the picture using various colors. For instance, a door hangs on hinges in a frame, which fills an entrance, thus creating an opening into the room. See? Lots of ways to convey a gap in the wall that allows characters in and out of a space.
Even if your character is discussing doors, there are ways to avoid repeating the word “door.” You can have your character focus on the materials used to create the door (e.g., wood, metal), the shape (i.e., is it a round Hobbit door?), and/or the door’s purpose (e.g., to block entrance, to block the weather). Readers can fill in gaps based on context. They don’t need to hear the same word repeatedly.
In nonfiction …
I am making the assumption that nonfiction, in this case, is not storytelling. If your project is nonfiction storytelling, I direct you to the fiction section above.
Technical and instructional writing requires accuracy and consistency. Readers of nonfiction don’t need their reading experience to be artfully delivered via the use of synonyms. Consider the following examples.
If the thing you are writing about is a web page, then it is a web page. Borrowing from my Drupal instructional writing, web pages are made up of various objects that you probably recognize: header, menu, side blocks, footers, and the reason for the visiting the web page – the content to be read. Said content comes from different sources in Drupal: nodes (A.K.A content pages), search results, forms, and more. Each source defines the type of web page: an article page, a search page, a form page.
Imagine you are just learning about Drupal and the author of your instruction talks about pages without distinguishing between the types. Don’t worry, I know what happens. I teach this stuff. Answer? Confusion.
In nonfiction, my recommendation is to steer clear of synonyms for the sake of non-repeating words. Use the word whose meaning is as precise as possible and stick to it. Later, when your readers have made that word their own, they can mix things up. They can say page versus article web page if they so choose because, in their mind, they know what they are saying. Their boss might not, but that’s not your problem. You did your best.
Hang with me. One last lesson on word select and meaning.
Again, let’s visit one of my favorite technical topics: Drupal. Recall that a node is a source for a page and that it’s also known as a content page. The scope of the word “content” can include non-node objects on the web page, such as blocks. Hence, even though node is a weird word that needs defining and getting used to, I recommend using it. To choose content over node can actually create confusion if taken literally.
Be careful that you don’t assume your audience will know the meaning of your words, unless you can control your who reads your work. Nope. That’s unlikely.
Phonetics and Slang
Phonetics and slang come into play more often in fiction, in my opinion. With that said, nonfiction can fall to the trappings of slang if it’s written in a strong, conversational tone.
In Fiction …
When it comes to fiction, I read genres that lend themselves to phonetic spelling, words no longer in use today, and words that mean one thing to the culture in play versus Webster’s definition. For instance, writing dialogue with a Scottish accent can be fun. You want your character to sound authentic. Until your reader thinks, “Hoots, mon. I dinna ken wha’ ye mean.”
With the exception of wha’, each of the words in that sentence are real. However, they don’t all mean what the dictionary says. Hoots is not the sound of an owl. It means, “Hey,” in this instance. And mon doesn’t mean a variant in the spelling of mono-. It means, “Man.” And “dinna” means don’t.
Although you might find it fun to create dialogue that sounds like your character, in this scenario, you need to ask yourself, “Is your audience Scottish and were they raised around a Scottish brogue and do they read in Scottish brogue?” If you want to distinguish the dialogue of your characters and one has an accent, do your research. Once you can phonetically mimic the accent in writing, select a few commonly used words that your readers can quickly learn. Those words will be that character’s signature.
In Nonfiction …
In nonfiction, you are might find yourself using slang. The only way to avoid it is to write like a robot. I did that at first. I was very technical when composing the first chapters of Drupal: The Guide to Planning and Building Websites. Then my husband gave me some feedback. Painful? A little. Just try to recognize when your conversational tone is slipping too far and slang words slip in. Chose a more precise word, but keep your tone light.
We talked about authenticity in dialogue and using words specific to professional disciplines. In reality, authenticity spans several areas of writing, and can end up creating character or casting doubt.
I read a lot of stories that take place in Britain, as such I’ve gotten used to hearing how British English is different from American English. I was reading a book that was supposed to be taking place in America with American characters. However, they didn’t sound American. A quick Google and I learned that the author was British. I finished the book, but made a mental to consider my own American slang and idioms. It’s not easy.
Based on my technical work, I know for a fact that English isn’t the only language that differs from country to country. Spanish is interpreted or spoken exactly the same way across the Spanish/Hispanic speaking countries.
And, it’s not just differences between countries. The United States has pockets of American dialects that would leave you scratching your head. For instance, New York slang is different than Southern Appalachian (i.e., Mountain talk) slang.
Add in idioms, “a group of words established by usage as having a meaning not deducible from those of the individual words,” and the image of a deer in the headlights comes to mind. Oops. There I go using an idiom. According to Wiktionary, that idiom means, “A person in a mental state of high arousal caused by anxiety, fear, panic, surprise and/or confusion, or substance abuse. (idiomatic) A person with a stunned or glazed expression.”
Authenticity is just about words, but since that’s what this post is about, I’ll leave this topic as is.
Go ahead and write. Write what pops into your head. Don’t edit yourself. Don’t stop the flow. When your brain runs dry, read what you wrote and ask yourself,
- Were my words precise? Accurate?
- Did I use slang? How do you know if you did or didn’t? Did you look it up?
- Did I write for myself or a specific audience? Did I meet my goal? The only way to know is to get feedback from someone who isn’t in your head.
I hope the lessons I have shared above gave you something to think about and a path towards improving your writing.