“We [novelist and readers] have to read musically, testing the precision and rhythm of a sentence, listening for the almost inaudible rustle of historical association clinging to the hems of modern words, attending to patterns, repetitions, echoes, deciding why one metaphor is successful and another is not, judging how the perfect placement of the right verb or adjective seals a sentence with mathematical finality. We must proceed on the assumption that almost all prose popularly acclaimed as beautiful (‘she writes like an angel’) is nothing of the sort, that almost every novelist will at some point be baselessly acclaimed for writing ‘beautifully’ as almost all flowers are at some point acclaimed for smelling nice.” – James Wood, How Fiction Works
Word choice, lately, sits front and center in my mind. I’ve been in a unique position of reading both published books and manuscripts in various stages1. The unintentional side by side comparison solidified the importance of word choice, as much in the drafting process as in the final revisions. There is not one aspect of writing not directly effected by word choice2 at all points during the process. Further, it also defines a writer’s personal style.
And here’s the kicker about word choice — for me, its obvious when a word doesn’t work, but almost imperceptible when a word does work. (For this reason, most of the examples below are flawed word choices3.) A faulty word stands out, catches the eye, twinges the ear, trips the sentence flow, falsifies an action, discombobulates a character, or is simply unnecessary. A well chosen word is easily passed over on the path to the next moment. A perfect word glistens on the page, the reader pauses momentarily to soak in the newness of the word, metaphor, sentence or idea the author has exposed by their choice.
Cress by Marissa Meyer published by Feiwel & Friends is the third book in The Lunar Chronicles series and not my favorite in the series (so far). I happened to be reading Cress while contemplating word choice. Thus using Meyer’s missteps as examples is not (wholly) a reflection of her writing skill.
From the narrative perspective of Dr. Erland, “A gaggle of Lunar nobility arose from the ship first, bedecked in vibrant silks and flowing chiffons and veiled headdresses, always with the veiled headdresses” (pg. 56, Nook App, iPad mini). The use of “gaggle” in this sentence tripped me up. The literal definition of a gaggle is “a flock of geese when not flying”; metaphorically, “a group of loud supporters.” To this point in the series, Lunars are described as reserved, severe and etherial, their nobility even more so. Thus, “gaggle” contradicts their previously defined characteristics.
Also, in this sentence the verb “arose” is unideal. Arising as a physical act denotes an uplifting, a movement as if from sitting to standing. In this context, it confuses the action and location of the event. Are the Lunars levitating from the top of the ship or is the ship below the ground? The previous sentences do not describe the ship or location as such. Thus, “arose” confuses the location and action of the moment.
Further into the novel, from Cress’s narrative perspective, “She shivered, clawing her hands into the folds of her skirt” (pg. 374). The use of “clawing” is odd (not in the good, surprising way). It is a strange action, to claw into one’s clothing as if chasing a mouse that has run into her skirt. Further, it’s a word that exists outside of her portrayed, meek character.
Failing to choose the best (or, at least a better) word is not the only venue where author’s misuse language. Sometimes too many words, a lack of line editing, can rift readers from a moment; too many words may stifle emotional moments. Thus, the writerly choice is not between one word or another, but rather, any word at all.
During a highly emotional moment, Cress describes Dr. Erland, “The tips of his fingers were shriveled and blue” (pg. 376)4. Technically, there is nothing wrong with this sentence. However, removing the ineffectual verb “were” strengthens the incident’s poignancy. It is common for correct grammar5 to yield to direct emotions — especially when the close third person narrator partakes in the intense event. Further, deleting “were” enhances the descriptive “shriveled and blue,” allotting a clearer visual6.
Cinder, after brainwashing guards with her Lunar mind-control, “…stumbled ahead of them to punch in the code, emotionally drained” (pg. 377). Again, the sentence isn’t horrible, the word choices are valid. However, the words “emotionally drained” are unspecific, expositional and gratuitous. Meyer’s verb “stumbled” illustrates Cinder’s emotional exhaustion through action — the preferred “showing” of a character’s internal life. Tagging “emotionally drained” to the end of this sentence is an example of the dreaded “telling,” authors are warned against. Further, it’s a redundancy of Cinder’s feelings already expressed in the verb.
Whether the word is unsuitable for the character, event, or sentence structure, incorrect word choice shakes the reader out of the fiction, kills suspension of disbelief, and worse, undermines the trustworthiness of the author. Awkward words or phrases expel the reader from the moment and re-establishes the self-consciousness they endeavor to avoid whilst reading. From examining writing in its earliest stages to published pieces, I’ve learned that a work with word issues feels like driving on a dirt road littered with potholes. A creation with adequate words is akin to skimming along a newly paved highway. However, whilst reading a work with admirable word choices is driving on one of America’s most scenic routes with the love of your life and favorite music.
- I have been extremely lucky to be accepted as a reader for Armchair/Shotgun, as well as reading an early WIP of an author friend. Both of these opportunities have been instrumental to further understanding the writing/editing/publishing processes. ↩
- For more on word choice and character creation see Blood Red Road: Language as Character & Setting in YA Lit and Arclight: Lifeless in the Grey in YA Lit. ↩
- It’s my belief that artists can learn as much from flawed works as great works. Knowing what doesn’t work is as important as knowing what does. This is why reading an artistically unsuccessful book is not a waste a time as long as the reader is thoughtful about why a piece is ineffective. ↩
- Further clarity on this paragraph can be found in the post We Were Liars: Compositionally Unstable. ↩
- In this case, sacrificing the proper sentence for a phrase. ↩
- This might be a lesson for novelists to garner from their poet brethren. ↩