Voice Friday: Word Choices

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

Voice: Word Choices

Consider the opening of these two books:

  • boggart
    The little boat crept closer, over the grey-green water of the loch. Tommy could hear the slow creaking of the oarlocks, and see the white hair of the lean old man bent over the oars. His father said the MacDevon was one hundred years old, but Tommy had never had the courage to ask if it were true. The MacDevon was a clan chief, the last of his line, and you didn’t ask a clan chief a question like that.
    “Good day, Mr. MacDevon.” He caught the bow of the dinghy as it crunched into the small stones of the beach. This was a weekly ritual: the old man?s shopping trip from the island of Castle Keep. (106 words) The Boggart by Susan Cooper.
  • despereaux his story begins within the walls of a castle, with the birth of a mouse. A small mouse. The last mouse born to his parents and the only one of his litter to be born alive. “Where are my babies?” said the exhausted mother when the ordeal was through. “Show to me my babies.”
    The father mouse held the one small mouse up high.
    “There is only this one,” he said. “The others are dead.”
    “Mon dieu, just the one mouse baby?”
    “Just the one. Will you name him?”
    “All of that work for nothing,” said the mother. She sighed. “It is so sad. It is such the disappointment.” She was a French mouse who had arrived at the castle long ago in the luggage of a visiting French diplomat. “Disappointment” was one of her favorite words. She used it often. (141 words) (The Tale of Despereaux by Kate DiCamillo)

How would your characterize the vocabulary of these two books? How do they differ? What difference does it make toward voice?


Some of the best advice on writing comes from poets, who compress language into tiny packets of emotion. In How Does a Poem Mean? (It’s an old, but classic book. Look for it at places like abebooks.com), John Ciardi and Millier Williams discuss word selection.

They say, a poem,like any piece of writing, is a context for making choices. I go around repeating that a lot: a story is a context for making choices. For any particular piece, there are certain vocabulary choices that you include or exclude. Ciardi and Williams refer to this as the “diction” of a piece, or “the choice of words, their arrangement and the force, accuracy and distinction with which they are used.”

The Boggart, at first glance is a more complicated text, for an older reader. But in terms of word choices, it’s easier than The Tale of Despereaux.

Boggart has four big words; Despereaux, fifteen. Examples: Boggart: loch, courage, clan-chief, dinghy, ritual Despereaux: exhausted, ordeal, mon dieu, disappointment, luggage, diplomat, despereaux.

From this cataloging of vocabulary, you can see that the dictions vary. This is part of what makes a story’s voice unique. Part of the variation is that the different setting require different words. Loch and clan-chief are appropriate for the Scottish setting. Mon dieu is appropriate because Despereaux’s mother comes from France. But that’s exactly the point. A story is a context for making choices. When you consider the possibilities for a story, you instinctively reach for vocabulary that fits into the story. Do you want to include simple or complex words, formal or informal dictions, jargon or slang, Latinate or Anglo-Saxon based words? The variations are endless.

Word Banks

Miller and Ciardi do an interesting thing. They analyze the vocabulary of a John Milton poem, trying to pinpoint the selection strategies the poet used. The analysis produces a catalog of words that would fit into several categories, such as watery motion and regal splendor. Some words fit both categories and some just one. Words that fit neither were excluded from the poem.

To make this more practical, consider my first picturebook, The River Dragon. It?s a sort of Billy-Goat’s-Gruff story with a hero who must avoid the Chinese river dragon living under the bridge. My research had shown that Chinese dragons are in charge of weather and water. A river dragon ruled over a particular river.

How to characterize the dragon? I created a “Word Bank” by writing down as many “water verbs” as I could think of: trickle, rush, wave, thunder, etc.

Whenever the dragon moved, I withdrew a water verb from the Word Bank and used it. The dragon “surged out from under the bridge.” He “dove back under the bridge.”

Making Word Banks for a particular story helps you focus the word choices and help create the voice of the story.

No one has said to me, “Gee, Darcy, I love that your River Dragon moves with water verbs.” But the overall effect of the story?s voice is that this is indeed a dragon of the river.

Jane Yolen in an excerpt here and in her book, Take Joy: The Writer’s Guide to Loving the Craft, describes the words used by the Bardic voice this way: The actual words in the bardic voice are sometimes archaic, Latinate, British, sonorous. The word grey is frequently spelled with an e because it sounds and looks and feels like a different color that way. There is frequent use of metaphor, each exactly felt errors, as John Ciardi called them.

She does similar descriptions for other voices. The voice of any particular story could have a similar description of the word choices. Look at two different pieces of your own writing. How do the word choices vary to fit the needs of each story?

5 responses to “Voice Friday: Word Choices”