Thursday, January 30, 2014

Guest Post: Nikolas Baron—Choosing Carefully: The Art of Diction

Mark Twain once wrote, in a letter to George Bainton, “The difference between the almost right word and the right word is really a large matter - it's the difference between the lightning bug and the lightning.”

Those words are as true today as when the father of American literature penned them in 1888. The use of each word, whether writing fiction or nonfiction, is a choice, which should be made with careful consideration. Each word chosen by the writer is like a block in a wall. If too many weak blocks are used, or if they don’t fit together in the right way to support the weight of the structure, the entire thing collapses. Studying and emulating great writers, while taking care to avoid plagiarism, is an excellent way to learn stronger diction technique. The difference between the right word and the almost-right word is the difference between writing which sounds dull and flat, and quotable writing that endures for decades.

While the importance of strong diction cannot be overemphasized, the burden of finding the right word can be a heavy one. How does the writer choose the right word? Which is stronger, “marvelous” or “excellent”? Should a child be referred to as a “ruffian” or a “tot”? In which case is it permissible to use slang, and when should a more formal tone be considered? All of these questions can be answered only when the writer knows the answer to further questions: Who is the audience? What is the context of the writing?, and what is the purpose of the material?

The first two things the writer must consider when sitting down to create are the message, or purpose of the writing, and the audience. Writing without a clear purpose in mind is like rambling along the countryside without a map; the journey may be pleasant but the traveler is unlikely to arrive at any particular destination. The message is what the writer is communicating and audience is the recipient. The two come together to create a map for the writer to follow. Diction is the vehicle in which the traveler journeys. Whether the occasion calls for a horse and buggy or finely tuned sports car is up to the writer to decide.

Word choice is what determines the way the message will be conveyed to the reader, whether it comes with a negative connotation, or a positive spin. When writing about children for a parenting magazine, for example, words for children with neutral or positive connotations are preferable: child, toddler, kid, baby, even little angel might be acceptable. Words with negative connotations: ankle biter, brat, or urchin, would be avoided. In speaking, our audible tone of voice gives words more meaning. In writing, words must be chosen carefully, because the reader does not have the cues of body language and tone of voice to give them full meaning. The words themselves must do the work of carrying the message to the reader.

The slant of the writing is also affected by word choice. Consider these two sentences:

  • The teenager ran down the sidewalk in the pouring rain, getting wet the entire way, and stopped when he reached his own gate.
  • The young gentleman hustled along the pathway, water dripping from his expensive styled hair, pausing only when he arrived at the entrance to his abode.

Each construction conveys the same information, but the word choice creates two different pictures in the reader’s mind. The first could be the beginning of the story of an average teenager, running for home, and the second, a sophisticated youngster of a higher social class, coming back to his rightful place. The cues created by the words “teenager” and “young gentleman” build two different pictures in the reader’s mind, and the differences in “ran” and “hustled”, while subtle, are clear: Running implies a less controlled, slightly less dignified motion than “hustling”.

Choosing the right word is often as much a matter of taste and style as correctness in writing. The right word in one context would ring hollow in another. Proper diction illuminates writing with the power of lightning. Writers should never settle for the lightening bug.

By Nikolas Baron

Nikolas discovered his love for the written word in Elementary School, where he started spending his afternoons sprawled across the living room floor devouring one Marc Brown childrens’ novel after the other and writing short stories about daring pirate adventures. After acquiring some experience in various marketing, business development, and hiring roles at internet startups in a few different countries, he decided to re-unite his professional life with his childhood passions by joining Grammarly’s marketing team in San Francisco. He has the pleasure of being tasked with talking to writers, bloggers, teachers, and others about how they use Grammarly’s online proofreading application to improve their writing. His free time is spent biking, travelling, and reading.

Sunday, January 19, 2014

Book 3: The Liar's Prophecy

"Even death cannot protect you from your past."—the tagline of the third novel in the Task Force: Gaea series, The Liar's Prophecy. No spoilers to follow.

Mock up for the cover
The third installment of this series picks up not long after Memory's Curse ends, and the members of the United Nations Task Force: Gaea—Aegis, Talon, Aether, and Zodiak—will encounter something that has had millennia to fester with a deep-seated yearning for vengeance. While the gods possess the powers of the natural world, this entity's power comes from an altogether difference place, a place beyond the scope of most immortals—prophecy.

The enigmatic nature of prophecy keeps those unprepared to know away from powerful information, hence the use of prophets, sybils, or priests. Even Zeus himself cannot decipher certain cryptic auguries. Included in the immortals who can comprehend prophecy are Apollo, the Fates, and Ananke, the goddess of inevitability; these are not the only ones, however.

And, a prophetic voice that utters a false prophecy has immeasurable power since the recipient may not be able to tell truth from falsehood until it is too late. Fulfilling a false prophecy would bring irreparable damage.

Like Memory's Curse, this story will continue down a darker path, but books four and five will begin to emerge from the underworld, so to speak, so stay tuned for more information.

The Liar's Prophecy should be finished by fall 2014, so follow me on Twitter or Facebook for more regular updates.

Saturday, January 11, 2014

I Write for Word Nerds

"Why don't you just use regular words? You know, like 'dumb down' the vocabulary a little?" I was asked recently. By regular, I assume that meant easier or more commonly used. So, what you're saying is that you want a novel spoon-fed to you with language you don't have think about. Dumb down? I won't disrespect my readers by assuming they can't understand what I've written. Where's the fun in that? I certainly understand the desire to write for an audience, but I like the idea of providing a little bit of a challenge. Reading should not only be an adventure story, but also a word journey. Sometimes a writer just has to choose the best word for the situation, and it might not be the more common one. As a teacher, I want to raise the bar, not lower it.

When I was writing Task Force: Gaea, I decided that I wanted to write for readers who were like me: those lovers of language who don't mind taking the moment to grab a dictionary or fire up Google—basically, logophiles or word nerds.

In my mind, I see my audience as around 17+ (although younger readers can certainly understand the novels), those who have a more developed vocabulary or a willingness to learn. Reading for pleasure shouldn't mean divorcing yourself from self-improvement through language. 

Does that mean I'll have fewer readers of my novels? Probably.

Having been a bibliophile all my life, I've read my share of novels from Hardy Boys' mysteries to Les Miserables, and when I read the latter, if I came across a word I just didn't know, I simply looked it up. It's comforting to know that authors choose words that force me to think a bit. I don't mind learning. I realize, though, that not all people enjoy having to go get a dictionary or fire up Google. If that's the case, then you probably won't enjoy my books. Over the years, I've developed what I consider to be a pretty good vocabulary, and I enjoy using it. 

I revel in the power of words.

I strive to write quality stories with intrigue, complexity, and story lines to keep my readers interested all the way through the novel, questioning as they go. I write books the way I want to read them, and I don't believe in writing to a market just to sell books.

The moment a writer assumes his or her audience cannot understand the complexity of language or story, the writer has lost so much more. 
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