Tag Archives: words

27 Feb

How Powerful are Your Words?

Yesterday, I went to a local elementary school to tutor, something I’ve recently started. My second grader, CL, brought a nonfiction, information worksheet to go over. He read through the information on what makes popcorn pop and did pretty well in the reading. But his understanding was weak.

The paper said that popcorn kernels pop because the water in the kernel gets heated up into steam, which cracks open the hard cover and the popcorn pops out.

OK. I asked CL, “What is a kernel?
He didn’t know. In fact, he consistently had trouble pronouncing the word. And yet one of the exercises was to draw popcorn before and after popped.

Even more crucial to understanding the text, I asked CL, “What is steam?”
He didn’t know.

The writer of this informational piece made assumptions about his audience, that they would understand certain vocabulary words: kernel and steam. Further, these words were crucial to understanding the piece. In my opinion, the writer failed in communicating. (Yes, in the context of a school assignment, maybe CL just needed to learn a couple words. But these weren’t presented as vocabulary words; instead it was an informational piece that he needed to comprehend, but crucial information was missing from the text.)

How often do we fail to engage our audience because of our vocabulary, our sentence structures, the organization of our stories. Do you consider audience at every turn?

For fun, go to Up-Goer Five and try to write something only using the Ten Hundred most common English words. How does this compare to your usual writing? How should it compare?

Of course, even when writing picture books you don’t have to worry about vocabulary level because these books are usually read by an adult to a kid. However, you do need to make sure the adult will understand the book. Also, many unfamiliar words can be understood in context.

Vocabulary Level. Make sure your vocabulary levels will be understood by the reader. For unfamiliar words, create a strong context, or define it in the text.

Dialect or Diction. THE HELP was written in dialect and it almost turned me off from reading it. It wasn’t the topic or the events, just how it was told. It’s also part of the charm of the story.

Insult or Bless. Remember, too, that your words have the power to tear down or build up. Yes, in fiction, there are awful conflicts that must be expressed honestly. Yes, characters tear each other down. But overall, does your story end in a note of hope? Does good triumph over evil? I know there are dark stories without hope, without success. But they aren’t the type of stories I want to write. My stories end with hope.

Too Intellectual? When I write fiction, I use the words that are appropriate for my story, words that convey exactly what I mean. And yet, I also know that I tend to be a bit too much in love with my words. Sometimes, I will replace words–for my audience’s sake.

What do you do for your audience’s sake? What are you assuming they will know that will make your communication fail?

27 Jul

Voice Friday: Words for Your Voice

Voice Friday: Search Your Voice for Words

Voice Friday: Word Choices
Voice Friday: Word Connotations
Voice Friday: Word Sounds

I’ve talked before about the importance of word choices in establishing voice. So, now, you’re editing your novel and you’ve decided that this word is the right diction, has the right connotations, and sounds right. There’s one more consideration.

Search Your Voice

Would you actually choose this word or did you find it by looking it up in a thesaurus? In the context of this story, is it a word you would normally choose?

In other words, while you’re searching for the right words, you also need to remember that this should be your word choice, that it comes from your voice. Here, I’m stressing the need to remain true to your natural voice, while at the same time, serving the needs of the story. A tricky balancing act!

Les Edgerton, in his book Finding Your Voice, suggests that if more than 5% of the words in your writing are words you wouldn’t normally use, then it’s too much. You’ve gone too far beyond your natural voice.

He suggests using clustering to find words that come from your vocabulary.

I first encountered clustering in Writing the Natural Way . It’s technique that tries to by-pass your left-brain editor and instead, put you in touch with the artistic-right-brain.

Write a word in the center of the page and circle it. Draw lines going off the word and at the end of each line, draw another circle. Inside that circle, write a word that you associate with the central word. You can connect circles or draw multiple lines from one circle. Essentially, you’re creating a visual map of your connotations and associations for that word.

Edgerton suggests you take one of the off-shoot words and repeat seven or eight times. Then compare the word-webs. Are there any words in common among the webs? Which of these words would best word in your writing.

Instead of reaching for a thesaurus, reach inside your brain, inside your voice and look for the right word.

Voice Friday: Sentences
Voice Friday: Sentence Control

Voice Friday: Word Choices
Voice Friday: Word Connotations
Voice Friday: Word Sounds

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