Bird is the Word!
Welcome to the latest Everything's All Write podcast blog. Today’s episode is all about word choice—specifically, which words you use, which words you don’t, the why, and the when of it all.
Words. We have so many of them at our disposal. I mean, dictionaries and thesauruses are literally books that list of all the words available to you! But, how do you know which word to choose? Which word is best for your sentence, paragraph, chapter, story? Unfortunately, there is no true “right” or “wrong” answer to that question. But there are choices that are more right or more wrong and it is that spectrum that should be your guide.
So, what are the determining factors in that spectrum? To my mind, there are four major indicators that should dictate the words you choose to use in your writing. They are connotation, denotation, tone, and mood. Let’s look at each one individually.
Connotation and denotation are two sides of the same lexical coin. Connotation refers to the emotional and value-based weight given to a word, whereas denotation is simply the mechanical, dictionary definition of a word. For example, the words unintelligent and stupid mean essentially the same thing, but the words feel different. Stupid feels far harsher and critical while unintelligent could have a more clinical touch to it.
Let’s try another example. Is something old, antique, vintage, or outdated? Technically, these words share the same denotative meanings, but where old and outdated have negative connotations associated with them, antique and vintage are far more positive. You don’t want an old car, but a vintage one is considered cool.
Tone and mood are often treated as synonyms or are otherwise conflated as literary terms, but they really are quite different. Tone refers to the attitude of the writer to the work or subject matter of the work. The writer’s attitude or feelings towards a story might be romantic or cynical. It may be bleak or cheery. It could be nostalgic or solemn. It can be any of the feelings a writer may have that carry over into the work, and in doing so, dictate the words chosen. These choices are often made subconsciously, but the really good writers make these decisions consciously.
Mood is different in that it reflects the story’s emotional feel, not the author’s. It can pull from the same well of options that tone derives from (romantic, cynical, bleak, etc.), but the mood of a story is found in the atmosphere of the story, and that atmosphere is created through word choice.
Take, for example, Jonathan Swift’s A Modest Proposal. If you are unfamiliar with the piece, you should check it out. It’s one of my favorites mostly because of the tone and mood utilized. But to give a little context, A Modest Proposal is a satirical piece that suggests to the poor people of Ireland the solution to the problem of over population and economic hardship is for poor families to sell small children and orphans to the meat market to be eaten thereby lowering the population and number of mouths to feed in a household and generating new income in child-meat sells.
Horrible right? But it is a satire. A joke of sorts. It is an outrageous commentary of a serious issue. Swift’s tone is satirical, humorous. The mood of the piece is formal and serious. You must first think, “how can an author’s tone be funny, but the mood be serious?” Well, that’s one reason A Modest Proposal is seen as such a wonderful piece. Because Swift manages to marry the two so effortlessly.
Let me read to you a few excerpts from the piece.
It is a melancholy object to those, who walk through this great town, or travel in the country, when they see the streets, the roads, and cabin-doors crowded with beggars of the female sex, followed by three, four, or six children, all in rags, and importuning every passenger for an alms. These mothers, instead of being able to work for their honest livelihood, are forced to employ all their time in strolling to beg sustenance for their helpless infants who, as they grow up, either turn thieves for want of work, or leave their dear native country, to fight for the Pretender in Spain, or sell themselves to the Barbados…
The question therefore is, How this number shall be reared and provided for? which, as I have already said, under the present situation of affairs, is utterly impossible by all the methods hitherto proposed…
I shall now therefore humbly propose my own thoughts, which I hope will not be liable to the least objection…
I have been assured by a very knowing American of my acquaintance in London, that a young healthy child well nursed, is, at a year old, a most delicious nourishing and wholesome food, whether stewed, roasted, baked, or boiled; and I make no doubt that it will equally serve in a fricassee, or a ragoust…
It continues on from there to suggest further uses, recipes, and prices for this new market of child specific cannibalism, all delivered with the dry tones of an accomplished politician or academic. However, because it is delivered so dryly, the actual words come across as all the more absurd creating a surreal mood to the text despite its humorous tone.
All of this means that together, connotation, denotation, tone, and mood, should influence which word you choose. But the connection may be hard to see in the abstract. Let’s look at a few practical examples together in our tips and tricks section coming up!
Tips & Tricks
Here is a simple exercise to help clarify how you can make more conscious word choices in your writing.
Exercise: Take the following sentence about a car accident.
“The red car moved down the highway and hit the blue truck.”
How might we change a few words to make the accident sound more violent and catastrophic? We could substitute “moved” for “sped” and “hit” for “smashed into.”
“The red car sped down the highway and smashed into the blue truck.”
That sentence has a completely different feel, doesn’t it? It changes the mood of the story into something more dramatic simply by noticing the difference in connotations and denotations of “moved” vs “sped” and “hit” vs “smash.”
We can change the mood again by switching out those same words for other with different connotations but the same or similar denotations once again.
“The red car plodded down the highway and bumped the blue truck.”
This version, while technically saying the same thing, is less dramatic to the point of near humor.
Now, that you have an idea of how to best choose your words based on the tone or mood you want, let’s put our pens where are words are and take on a challenge. Here is you’re bi-weekly Wordsmith Challenge!
For this episode’s bi-weekly challenge take the following sentences and change some of the words to convey the tone or mood identified in parentheses.
1. Dwayne goes slowly down the corridor. (Fearful)
2. Dwayne goes slowly down the corridor. (Humorous)
3. Dwayne goes slowly down the corridor. (Formal)
4. Dwayne goes slowly down the corridor. (Cheery)
5. Dwayne goes slowly down the corridor. (Gloomy)
Once you've done that you can send it to me at firstname.lastname@example.org. The best examples will be highlighted in a future episode and posted on the website.
And speaking of the best examples… Here is last episode’s winner for the chapter ending challenge.
1. introduce main character Jack and Tyson
2. discover the dead body of ex-girlfriend Mary
3. begin to lockdown the crime scene
The chapter will end on a “CSI” like quip about the crime
This example was perfect! Congratulations, Brady, and keep up the good work. Remember, if you send in your work, it could be you featured on another episode of the podcast!
And if you don’t want to share your work, that’s okay too. The important thing is that you’re writing and trying something new. That’s how writing gets better! Even if you hate what you wrote, the practice will pay off. Keep writing and remember… Everything’s All Write!