If I called a very talented but very socially awkward artist a “freak” how would you feel?
What if I called the same person “avant-garde” instead. Do you feel differently about them now?
And if I called them a “savant” or a “prodigy” or “off beat” do you change your opinion of what this person is like?
Our words carry context and power beyond their basic definitions. We’re consciously choosing word after word after word as we write, words that have long, complicated histories and cultural nuance, words that can mean so much or so little based on the context provided.
The French call it “le mot juste” (translated to “the right word”) but for us unilingual English people, it’s just “word choice.” Diction helps dictate the tone of your writing, informs the reader of your intentions in the piece and your attitude towards the subject and audience. Good diction moves the narrative along naturally and adds meaning through individual words while shitty diction screws with and trips up a reader who is confused over how and why a certain word was used.
Do you see how dropping in the words “shitty,” “screws with,” and “trips up” in that last clause changed the tone of my writing? I suddenly went from relatively proper to lowly colloquial. One word can change a writer’s tone immediately, even throw an entire paragraph off its intended course.
Being a good writer is synonymous with picking the best words to serve your story. Good diction (and good writing) means the intentional and deliberate selection of the right words in the right places, choosing concrete specifics over bland abstracts.
So how can you employ correct, conscientiousness diction?
You have to embrace words, make love to them with your brain, let their timeless beauty overwhelm your emotions, merge with and tickle your soul in all the best spots. You have to find joy and energy in the way certain syllables so delicately roll from your tongue or pole-vault off the page into your eyeballs. You must adore words to the point where your immediate family finds it very, very annoying.
But that’s not weird because we’re writers, right? Right?
There are two ways to define a word: denotation and connotation.
Denotation is the dictionary definition of the word. The good old fashioned, “let’s argue over what this word means after 5 glasses of pinot on Thanksgiving” definition. The denotative definition includes all official variations of a word including noun, adjective, or adverb forms, if applicable.
Connotation is any alternate meanings of the word that you won’t find in any dictionary, even the OED. Colloquialisms, cultural references, slang. These are the definitions that people try to use in Scrabble to justify their nonsense 85 point word. These definitions are loaded with meaning and can connote a time period, regional location, or societal bias when used correctly.
The word “pop” is a great example. The denotative definition means “to make a short, quick, explosive sound.” The connotative meaning could be a reference to carbonated sugary beverages in you’re from the Midwest, or a reference to popular trends in music or literature or film.
Connotation also carries with it certain ethical or moral weight, steering your reader in a certain direction based on the words used to express the ideas. Consider the word “unemployed” verses “jobless” verses “vocationally challenged.” Compare “drunken pirate” to ” nautical rum enthusiast.” Word choices can change the ethical impact of writing by letting the reader know what the writer thinks about the topic, and probably where he’s going to take the argument.
Always make sure you know what a word means before you use it. If you’re not sure, look it up! A careful reader will immediately notice a glaring malapropism and you’ll lose valuable writing-cred-points. Make specific word choices, not pacific ones.
Be careful with connotation. Some connotative meanings may seem obvious to you, but may alienate or confuse a reader from another area/country/generation. Some might even offend a reader if you didn’t know that a certain word is used derogatorily in another culture.
High, Medium, Low
Diction can also be measured, sort of.
High diction is sophisticated and erudite, packed with Latin-based words, complicated grammatical structures, many-syllable words, and educated allusions or references. This style of writing lends itself perfectly to academic, medical, or scientific journals, but tends to alienate (and generally piss off) other audiences.
Low diction is conversational. It can be silly, simple, to-the-point, and uses smaller words. This style is good for addressing general audiences but tends to be too casual for intelligent readers who often read to learn and experience new things.
Medium diction is balanced. Zen writing. A Libra’s preferred state. A combination of high and low; enough high to entertain or teach or impress a reader but enough low to keep them comfortable and not overwhelm them with stuffy stuffiness.
It can be very difficult to strike an effective balance in your word choices, but if you can (through lots and lots of practice), it ultimately strengthens your writing in ways you may not have though possible.
A writer like David Quammen couldn’t possibly write the type of science-narrative he does without smacking his high diction over the head with a fish sometimes to bring it low. He find the perfectly smooth travel lane between the fast (of readability and enjoyment) and the slow (of of highly technical science) and takes you for a joy ride you didn’t expect, all because he balanced his diction.
Words are the Lego bricks of our craft (and grammar is the little colorful instruction pamphlet). It’s up to you to know what each brick looks like, sounds like, smells like, and tastes like. You can forge phenomenal creations if you place the right bricks in the right order at the right time.
Your words are the only way you can connect to your reader, so make sure you’re meaning what you’re saying when you’re saying what you mean. Get to know your favorites. Read about them, study them, discover all their meanings. Add more and more words to your arsenal until you’re overflowing with worldly wordly weapons.
And when you’ve got an impressive collection, use them, often and deliberately to great effect, to create characters and turn phrases and spout silly irreverent witticisms.
You’re going to spend a lot of time alone with words if you’re going to make this writing thing happen. Might as well be BFFs.