For writers, word selection is a lot like natural selection

image Several weeks ago in my Nickel’s Worth on Writing, I talked about three of the most important tools a writer wields when it comes to establishing their voice. Does anyone remember what they were?

For the sake of time, and my feelings, let’s just assume everyone remembers those tools and, in a series of uncontrollable outbursts, begin shouting:

TIMING! TRUTHFULNESS!

and…

and…

CUERVO!

No, the third tool is not Cuervo. It’s RELATIVITY. Although I think we can all agree Cuervo does have a way of making even the most abstract things seem relevant.

In this case, however, Relativity means ensuring the reader can relate to what we’re writing about. This is especially true when it comes to personal experience and family anecdotes. For example, that hilarious story about how Aunt Frida got mad and stomped through the garden won’t be nearly as entertaining to readers as it is to you unless, like you, they already know Aunt Frida was a mule. I realize that’s an overstatement, but unless you take time to lay the foundation of your story in a way that involves the reader, they will likely sit down and refuse to follow.

As for Timing and Truth, they’re pretty self-explanatory. In a nutshell, Timing is the use of punctuation and sentence structure to create a rhythm that enhances your storytelling, while Truth is exactly that: writing about what you know and, whenever necessary, doing the research to educate yourself about a topic before presenting it to your readers. For example, when I wrote about the first wedding proposal in space, I prepared myself by going through NASA’s extensive astronaut training program.

OK, fine. But I did do my research before writing about how awful the food would be at a space wedding, with puree’d roast beef and cedar-plank salmon from a tube, and how throwing rice would be a big mistake since, thanks to zero gravity, the wedding party would spend the rest of the evening surrounded by clouds of floating rice. And how do you spike the punch when it’s served in a squeeze box?

Now that we’ve re-summarized those first three important writing tools, here are two more:

Vocabulary
Economy

Vocabulary seems straight forward, right? A knowledge of words. But more important than knowing a lot of words β€” or big words β€” is knowing the perfect words. Think of it as the care you put into choosing the words to express your love for someone. Or quite possibly while trying to get out of a speeding ticket. In either case, there’s a lot riding on your word selection. One wrong word, or too many of them, and you could find yourself in hand cuffs. (I realize for some of you that might be the objective in the first case, but just play along.)

Let’s take a look at the last sentence a few paragraphs ago, about educating myself at NASA. What if I had written it like this:

…when I wrote my column on the first person to propose in space a while ago, I learned about the subject by participating in the astronaut program at NASA.

Here’s what I went with:
…when I wrote about the first wedding proposal in space, I prepared myself by going through NASA’s extensive astronaut training program.

The breakdown:
1) “…when I wrote my column” versus “…when I wrote about…” In the second instance, I’m assuming you already know it’s “my column.” I wanted to avoid another “me” reference and also improve the flow.

2) “…on the first person to propose in space a while ago…” versus “…the first wedding proposal in space…” We all know it’s a person who is proposing since there has been no reference to aliens or talking animals, so I didn’t feel it was necessary to refer to “the first person” proposing. Instead, I went with “first wedding proposal in space” since the proposal is the subject. Now, if alien or talking dog proposals were common place, then yes, I would make sure to clarify it was a person proposing. Hopefully to another person and not a talking dog. And I chose to completely drop “a while ago” because it really doesn’t matter when I wrote it, and trimming it cleans up the sentence.

3) “…I learned about the subject by participating in the astronaut program at NASA” versus “…I prepared myself by going through NASA’s extensive astronaut training program.” To get to the action of this sentence, I dropped “learned about” and “by participating in” and combined it into “preparing myself by going through,” then moved “NASA” closer to the action as a way to bring those two images together much faster. From that point, I built on the satire by describing what I did as “extensive astronaut training.”

Are you having flashbacks from eighth-grade sentence diagramming? Sorry about that. I hope the breakdown was helpful in offering at least some insight into the thought process of choosing the right words or, if nothing else, why my daughter won’t let me anywhere near her book reports.

Our last writing tool, Economy, is directly related to Vocabulary because choosing the right word can often mean fewer words. Economy is big part of the revision process, when you take a hard look at what can be eliminated from the literary structure you have created while maintaining its integrity. While this isn’t as important in novel writing, it is critical for columnists, short story writers and journalists. Every story requires being as concise as possible by using an economy of words. Ironically, as I say this, I just realized the current word count makes this my longest Nickel’s Worth post ever.

Fortunately, Hypocrisy isn’t one of the tools we will be talking about today.

Alfred Hitchcock once said everything in a movie must have purpose and propel the story. If it doesn’t, it needs to be eliminated β€” which could explain the number of murders in his films. In short, when it comes to Economy, think of Alfred Hitchcock.

But probably not while you’re in the shower.

______________________________________________________________________________________

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Ned Hickson is a syndicated columnist with News Media Corporation. This has been an excerpt from his upcoming book, Ned’s Nickel’s Worth on Writing: Pearls of Wisdom from 16 Years as a Shucking Columnist. His first book, Humor at the Speed of Life, is available from Port Hole Publications, Amazon.com or Barnes & Noble.

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25 thoughts on “For writers, word selection is a lot like natural selection

  1. Great post Ned!! My favourite book on writing is “the elements of style” and I still try to eliminate unnecessary words. If I’m writing quickly (or on my phone on the subway) then my writing absolutely suffers (and sorry, if you read those posts!) but I do try to do the things you talk about in your post.

    And when I read the paragraph above, I realize I’m a terrible comment writer πŸ˜›

    • Ha! We must’ve been reading each other’s posts at the same time; I just finished commenting on yours. After checking my grammar first, of course πŸ˜‰

      And yes, The Elements of Style is on my book shelf, too. Terrific resource and pleasurable to read β€” generally not things associated with each other.

      As for your comments, they are always welcome and well said πŸ˜‰

    • You’re a great comment writer!
      I have that book, too Ann. I really like it and mine has some cool illustrations.
      Hope you’re well – I’ll be over to visit soon! Xo

  2. Whew, that sure was a long post to get through **wipes sweat off brow**. Ha! Your comment about hypocrisy reminded me of a funny story about Ben Franklin. He decided at one point in his life that he was going to improve himself so he went to his friends and asked them which of his qualities could use work. They gave him a considerable list – to his dismay. One of the most repeated was his lack of humbleness. He worked for a month on the list by changing behaviour, correcting himself and honestly trying to do his best, all the while remaining humble. At the end of the month he called a meeting of all his friends and went over his accomplishments. They all agreed that he had done well, so Franklin told them he was going to have a party to spread the word about how good he now was. At that moment it suddenly occurred to him that his humbleness still needed a lot of work. πŸ˜›

    Great post Ned. I learn a lot from your Friday NWOW. Thank you very much.

  3. Getting the ideas down is, for me, the hardest part. Once that’s done, I actually enjoy going back through and trimming, replacing, getting the rhythm, cutting fat. Once a copy editor, always a copy editor, I guess. I find it practical as opposed to creative, but there is an art to it. Good post.

    • Thanks, Ross. Applying you skills as a copy editor is a real bonus. And yes, it is definitely an art. It’s like being a film editor; if it’s done right, it makes the movie. If it’s done wrong, it breaks the movie.

      Unless it’s porn. Then, who cares?

  4. I have a degree in English Language and Literature and I can tell you two things: all poetry is about sex and death. Ok, so one thing. I can tell you one thing.
    I am impressed that you can explain all that so well, and still manage to throw in a reference to handcuffs.
    You write good. Head hurt now. πŸ™‚
    I always look forward to your posts.

  5. Sooo….I remember this particlar article and it’s guided me several times. Thank you! I’m coming back to you to say that it (word economy) worked. Too well. Ha!
    Long story short (promise). I had a piece accepted to a literary journal (yay)…with a “but” attached.
    “Your story fits our theme and we want to feature it, BUT it’s too short. Can you add another 500 words?”
    *gulp.
    Now, the challenge is adding without making it sound like an afterthought.
    My helpful husband suggested adding a lot more ifs, ands, and, buts. He always has been a but(t) man πŸ™‚

    • Haha! Well, your husband and I would probably hit it off!

      A HUGE congrats on the article, Michelle. That’s terrific! One thought on adding more might be to go through and see there are any points you might’ve liked to include but didn’t, or if applicable, adding an update or post-script at the end?

      Or you could make a photocopy of your butt… πŸ˜‰

      • LMAO (therefore, no need to photocopy!)
        Actually, my husband already feels like he knows you – it might be scary for you to know that you come up during dinner conversation some times πŸ™‚
        Thank you for the congrats. I could definitely beef up the ending – aHA! A butt photocopy might be appropriate after all. Too bad the article isn’t humor or horror!
        Have a fantastic weekend, Ned!

        • Hahaha! I was going to say “rim shot” but that takes us back to the “butt” thing again!

          And I’m flattered my name comes up at the dinner table. Anywhere else, though, and it starts getting uncomfortable for everyone… πŸ˜‰

          You all have a fantastic weekend as well, Michelle!

    • Odd craft, writing, with a goal to be half the person you used to be.

      Except if you’re Michelle, of course. Way to go, Mama Mick! You should print that literary magazine acceptance and tack it on the wall. That’s no stretch.

      Great post here, Ned. You’re a tad more entertaining that Strunk and White.

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