Word choice is the most obvious and superficial level of the story. It’s the first thing that most, author and critic, look at and are disheartened by. The good news is that word choice is not as important as we make it, and easier to fix than we think. After getting passed the first couple of hurdles, word choice becomes much more about subjectivity, people only using it as a means to prove you suck when they want you to.
Of course it has a lot of influence, but most of that influence is a reflection of the actual depth within the manuscript. In most cases, trying to focus only on the superficial surface is like putting in contacts to cure jaundice. If you cure the disease, the symptoms will clear up on their own. That being said, the moment we overcome those typical and obvious mistakes is the moment we feel a thousand times more confident in our writing ability, which is why I am considering step one to the writing process.
There are a few quick rules to having “good” word choice:
1) Don’t sound like you’re making it up.
2) Sound like you’re speaking (although stylistically) not writing.
3) Imply the appropriate tone.
Look for these common issues first, because they are typically what people think of as bad writing.
A story should sound like it took a lifetime, or even an eternity (for science fiction or fantasy) to orchestra. Many beginning books will tell the honest truth: Nothing has happened to these characters before I started writing, I don’t know what’s going to happen next, I’m stalling to figure out what is going on, I’m discovering information as I’m giving it, etc.
A story doesn’t necessarily need to sound realistic or like it’s being spoken in a traditional sense. It can be stylistic, and actually the standards of protocol demand for certain norms that would not make sense orally (How many times are you telling a story and you go into deep description what the people are wearing?) But there are certain choices beginners will consistently make that are unique to writing, and become typical enough that experience makes you slough it off, such as having long sentences, using larger words, and repeating words more often. Style is appropriate, but it is also something developed over time, not what the author happens to do. (Because that ends up being what other authors happen to do.)
And when a story isn’t coming out right, it’s usually the atmosphere at fault. Word choice is most influential when it comes to tone and ambiance, and many writers become discouraged because their dark and stormy night isn’t seeming as dark and stormy as desired.
How to fix it:
Pay attention to verbs.
Verbs are assumed to be the most important word in a sentence, until given reason otherwise. What this means is that if there is something wrong with a passage, targeting the verbs first will often solve it.
-If something is wrong with the atmosphere make sure most verbs imply the desired tone.
The cat walked down the street.
The cat skulked down the street.
The cat padded down the street.
The cat trotted down the street.
The cat darted down the street.
Basic verbs (walk, sit, said) are malleable and useful, but don’t add to the energy of the scene.
-Make the verb correct, and the adverb tweak it.
If you don’t have a verb that means exactly what you want it to, then adverbs come in handy! Adverbs imply a more appropriate magnitude or a more exact meaning. And because they are far more flexible than verbs, they don’t have to be as accurate atmospherically or by definition. Adverbs are fine, but the verb itself always has to ring true.
The sun gently hit her face.
…is more oxymoronic than
The sun suddenly touched her face.
Match the verb as closely to what it’s trying to say and the adverb has some room to contradict any implication or assumption. But accurate adverbs with inaccurate verbs will sound like lazy writing, and people will be more inclined to think it’s a wrong word choice rather than a specific image. And, even in this case, it is often useful to find the right verb than to just stick on a correcting adverb.
Remember that using the verb “was,” and basic verbs will make the sentences more passive and less tense (which is sometimes what you want). If your scene is lacking intensity or tension, getting rid of the was’s and using stronger verbs will help.
-Pay attention to prepositional phrases.
Prepositional phrases are anything you can do to a tree, around, over, under, in, above, to. “I walked a dog to town.” “I went down the street.” “I looked back over my shoulder.”
I’ve found that when people think a sentence is confusing, it’s often because they preposition confused them. If I change “in” to “on,” it might be all it takes for them to make sense out of it. You can use nouns creatively as long as the prepositions imply the right image.
They are also the reason why people get confused in longer sentences. If people think something is too complex, notice how many prepositions you have. They muddle what the inflection of the sentence is supposed to be. “He was the father of a young girl in college in Georgia at the time of the recession.”
-When in doubt, shorten the sentence.
Shortening sentences is a lot like restarting your computer. You don’t have to know the problem and it usually works. Which is to say there is nothing wrong with longer sentences, but if there is, shortening it will often fix it.
For those of you who don’t like the “I’ll just start hacking until it looks right approach,” there are actually two common reasons why a longer sentence isn’t working.
The sentence changes reasons for existing midway:
“Dorian’s leg was leaping up and down even as he sat in the office that Kera had fashioned from a disused library in the small house that she shared with her father.”
The reader gets confused on how to read it (thereby what it actually means):
“Events many light years away complicate things for an expeditionary group sent to Earth to access the blue planet for acceptance into the interplanetary council, bringing some together while tearing others asunder as they try to find their ways home.”
Authors are likely to write long sentences because they don’t need the breath to do it. If the subject seems to stay on topic (seems being the operative word) and a reader can guess which words to emphasis on the fly, the sentence is perfectly fine being as long as it is.
And, for some contexts, it is important to remember that length of sentence implies duration of money. A sentence that takes a long time to say implies a long time to do. So, often, when wanting more tension, shortening a sentence will make actions seem quicker, and thereby have more action.
-Author’s intention is king.
This is the big daddy of having “appropriate” word choice, and that is the author’s intention.
First, it is extremely important to have the character’s motivation and the narrator’s motivation supersede the authors, i.e. the reader should be thinking, “Why did the character do that?” then “Why is the narrator telling me this?” and never, “Why is the author making this up?”
It is common for people to be honest in their word choice. They inform the audience that they’re lying and that they are dictating a story just by how they tell the story.
This manifests in, what I call, an explanatory tone. This is where the writer sounds like he’s delivering information accurately:
“One such traveler was a young woman, dressed in a dark gray dress which ended at her knees and kept her arms bare, but had enough material around her neck for her to use as a hood.”
When an author only outright delivers one piece of information at the time, it makes his intention clear, and does little for ambiance.
Unless the information is super important and the writer wants the audience to know it’s super important, the scene is better set up through clouding why he’s telling the audience.
Focus on action and reaction. You can say, “She was wearing a dress,” but that tells me it’s important to know she’s wearing a dress, and only tells me that one piece of the puzzle. If, however, you discuss how she “played with the hem of her dress,” it indicates the length of it, what she’s wearing, and gives me the slightest inclination about her mood or who she is. Also, giving me the ramifications of a decision, “The irons on his wrists cut deep grooves into them,” instead of, “His hands were bound by irons,” will give me more information when the character can’t interact with them, or isn’t thinking too.
Of course, the more you play around with this, the more the audience is going to have to speculate. It will leave more room open for interpretation.