Words - The Writer's Building Blocks

Ernie Watson  
The most basic element of writing construction is word choice. For the writer to convey his meaning to the reader he must choose his words carefully and use them accurately.

This blog post was originally published on Critique Circle in the year 2016

The most basic element of writing construction is word choice. For the writer to convey his meaning to the reader he must choose his words carefully and use them accurately.

A simple example is the word ‘cob’. The word could mean part of a maize ear, a round loaf of bread, a small nut, a small horse, a male swan or a lump of coal. The context where the word is used will define the meaning. If I wrote about a farmer who rode a piebald cob the reader would assume I’m writing about a small horse. If I wrote about someone eating a cob, however, my reader may not be able to decide what I meant when I wrote ‘cob’. To make sure my reader knows what I want to say I have to check that the context leaves no doubt in his mind.

I also have to consider if this very small word will be in the vocabulary of the person who will read my work. I doubt that all British readers will be familiar with all the definitions of the word cob. Many English speakers in the rest of the world may never have even heard the word. Is the word use appropriate for my reader? Perhaps it would be better to describe a farmer who thoughtfully chewed a hazelnut as he rode a powerfully built, short-legged, piebald horse than use the word cob. It may be tempting to show my reader I have extensive knowledge of this lovely little word ‘cob’ but is it the right choice?

The novelist Laurie Graham uses the word in her book MR STARLIGHT (2004). She says:

“She'd got a right old cob on her and I hadn't even got as far as the details of Sel's Higher Purpose in America.”

In this context the word indicates that ‘She’ is being grumpy or is sulking. The word has been in use for at least 300 years but I doubt that this definition can be found in a standard English dictionary. Is Laurie Graham right to use the word? I believe she is. She knows that her readership will recognise the word and the context. She paints a great mental picture in a few words with great precision.

We all should recognise that English is an evolving language. Fifty years ago anyone who used the word stadiums as the plural of stadium instead of stadia would be regarded as uneducated. I cringe every time I see the word forums used instead of fora here at Critique Circle. It seems so wrong but I have to accept that it is correct in modern usage. We all have to move with the times.

I have seen several instances where a writer has used a word without regard for its correct meaning. When challenged, writers have responded by saying that when they use the word it means something other than the dictionary definition. There are over a million words in the English language surely it would be better to find one that is a more precise fit.

Often writers will hyphenate words willy-nilly without considering if it is correct. Commonly used hyphenated words can be found in the dictionary. If I cannot find the word in the dictionary perhaps I should not use it. Yet we often see words that should be hyphenated without hyphens. When numbers such as twenty-three, twenty-fifth, one-fourth, two-thirds are written they should be hyphenated but are often not.

As with all writing, the overriding consideration should be how appropriate the writing is for the reader. If my target reader is mature and well educated he will know if my work is littered with inaccuracies. He may conclude that my works is badly written and not worth reading.

Using too many simple words may cause my reader to feel he is being patronised or undervalued. If my work is accurate but my target reader has to keep reaching for his dictionary he may become bored and irritated and may even get a ‘cob on’. My choice of words could be the deciding factor if a reader remains engaged with my story.

I watched the BBC News today and was shocked to hear the newscaster say that tear gas was fired at refugees. It’s terrible that this happened, but I am also disturbed that a newscaster would use such an emotive word as fired. The word was used as a verb and the definition is “to cause a weapon to shoot bullets, arrows, or missiles”. There were no bullets, arrows or missiles involved. What happened was liquid was spread in small drops over an area. In other words the refugees were sprayed. To use the word sprayed does not diminish what happened, but it gives a more accurate picture. The newscaster could have described how the tear gas affected the refugees and this would have resulted in a more balance report. The use of the word ‘fired’ certainly grabbed my attention. I don’t know if it was used in error or if it was used to change the viewer’s perspective on what happened. My point is, it demonstrates the power wielded by the choice of one little word against another.

The words I put into the mouths of my characters will say a great deal about them. My protagonist could answer a question with a simple ‘yes’ but could also say ‘sure’ or ‘indubitably’. Would the same words have the same nuances in the mouth of my antagonist?

I must consider the emotive effect that word choice has on my reader. If I’m writing an action scene I would be using short sharp words such as snap and jab in short sentences and paragraphs. Introspective scenes may require atmospheric words that plant subliminal images in the mind of the reader. I should consider the use of onomatopoeia a good example is a song by Tom Paxton called “The Marvelous Toy” by Tom Paxton:

“It went zip when it moved and bop when it stopped,

And whirr when it stood still.

I never knew just what it was and I guess I never will.”

It may seem an impossible minefield for a writer to navigate but it’s not. All the above are examples of devices that we use in our everyday speech. We can use them all in writing our stories. Use the words you are comfortable with. Don’t force yourself to use words that don’t come naturally. Use your unique voice to speak to the reader that listens to you.

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