5 Tips for Word Use in Your Novel

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5 Tips for Word Use in Your Novel

Anybody Can Write a Novel 2.0

Chapter 7 “Editing” – Section 4 “Words”

Words are but symbols for the relations of things to one another and to us; nowhere do they touch upon absolute truth.”

-Friedrich Nietzsche

Now that we've talked about how words function as part of a sentence, we're going to look at them as methods of communication, in terms of what they mean and how they function. This means that we're going to be taking a short break from all the technical grammar until next article [pauses for cheers and applause and perhaps booing from the Grammar Nazis (you know who you are, and that I love each of your dark little grammar-loving hearts)], and spend some time conceptualizing the human brain and human behavior. This also means that our look at word usage will be quite a bit more abstract than the last chapter and be more about considering our own words from a reader's perspective.

Tip 1: Think about what words really are and how they function.

At its core, human communication, language, and words are simply a collection of arbitrary symbols with varying amounts of logic and organization, that we use to send coded messages of communication. For example, let's think about the word “dog”; whether spoken or written, there is no correlations between the symbol that English-speaking humans use for that creature. If, once upon a time, the word had originally been “glot” instead of “dog” there would be no effect on how we think about the word or use it. The only real connection between the animal and the word “dog” is the fact that we have all learned this arbitrary coding from the time we were little, and have all made an unknowing and unspoken agreement that this is the arbitrary symbol that we will always use when a speaker wants to communicate the concept of that animal to a listener. Now, one of the most interesting things about this mental programming is that it does not only communicate images, but also intended and unintended emotions. We can purposely create images that make others feel sadness or we can use our words directly to harm others by symbols used to directly communicating our disdain for them. We can also communicate emotions and feelings unintentionally. For example, if I say the word, “dog” you have no control over whether you feel happy because you like dogs, sad because your dog recently passed, scared because you had a bad experience with dogs, disgusted because you think they smell, or indifferent because you really couldn't care less. So within our mental vaults of definitions, concepts, and images that we've learn in our lifetimes and unlock in communication by using words as keys, we not only have universal meaning for the content within but also personal meaning.

Tip 2: Know the difference between connotation and denotation.

When we think about the meaning of words, our mind most often go to the dictionary definition. However, dictionary definition—or “denotation”—is only half of any given word. The other half of a word is “connotation,” which is the general feeling, emotion, or cultural significance that any given word has. As an example, lets look at the word “homeless.” The dictionary definition (the denotation) of the word is simply a person who doesn't have a home. However, there is a very strong cultural connotation for “homeless” that implies someone who has no choice but to be in the street, who is dirty, who quite possibly does drugs, and who might be mentally ill. Lets compare that word to one of the exact same denotative meaning—drifter. Though their dictionary definition is pretty much the same, a drifter strikes a very different cultural image of a Rambo-esque serious figure who wanders from place to place and who can either be romantically dangerous or mysterious. Begin thinking about words not just in terms of their denotative meaning but also in terms of their connotative meaning so that your words communicate the exact image that you are trying make us picture in our minds.

Tip 3: Learn how other people think words work.

Have you ever noticed two people fighting or debating a topic, and then discovered that they weren't even talking about the same thing? Or perhaps they were fighting because they were using the same word but with different definitions in mind. Often, people miscommunicate because each person has a different opinion about how words function. This problem alone provides enough complication in communication, but on top of that our brains sometimes trick us into the subconsciously belief that everyone around us uses words in the exact same way that we do and are just choosing to be difficult. Furthermore, people often have different philosophies on different types of words—making communication a jumbled mess. So before we talk about how we as writers use words, lets look at how other people use words. We're also going to take a look at one of my pet peeve words, “irregardless” to see how each branch of thought might look at such a word.

The Original Meaning Perspective

From the Sanskrit, to certain branches of Judaism, to older orders of the Catholic church, there is a longstanding tradition of trying to find the original human words and the original meanings for the words we use now. Though many of these orders existed to find these word for religious enlightenment or magical powers, their tradition continues today in the forms of etymology and within people who believe that words should remain unchanging. These people genuinely believe in a “true” definition for every given word, an that definition comes from the origins of how that word was used. This creates a lot of clashing when old words are adapted to new things or given new definitions; and it truly does frustrate them. They would see a word like “irregardless” and recognize that the original way of saying it is “regardless” and be frustrated that you changed it for no good reason.

The Expert/Insider Perspective

Another way people view words is almost as if they were personal property. You'll see this in subcultures and in fields of expertise, where the people belonging to it claim that the definition of the word belongs to them. On the one hand, this can be useful and even a positive tool for people and their language. It wasn't long ago that words like nerd, geek, and dork were all vile and degrading terms used to mock people at the fringes of society. But over time, these people took back those words as their own, redefined them, and now wear them with pride. Similarly, words with scientific uses can be more exact when experts use them, and would become generic and useless if the majority of people dictated their meaning. However, it presents a challenge when two groups feel strongly that a word means two different things, such as feminism which people argue either means the advancement of women, the advancement of equality for women, the destruction of feminity, the superiority of femininity, or anything in between. Without a common definition for the word, people violently argue about the concept until they are blue in the face, when they often share the exact same opinions on the actual politics. Someone with this perspective might look at the word "irregardless" and determine that it belongs to the people who use it and that it is as valid as "regardless."

The Deconstructed Word Perspective

More in line with modern etymology, the deconstructed word perspective looks at the roots of any given word—like what language (usually Latin, Greek, French, or German) the roots of the word came from, the prefixes, suffixes, modifiers, and root within any given word—so that words become something of a mathematical equation. For example, they would disassemble the word “unicorn” to see the Latin words “uni” and “cornu” which mean “single” and “horn,” and likely be pleased that the mythical one-horned creature has been names so precisely. In this school of thought, a word is most truly defined by its parts. They would look at the word “irregardless” in terms of the parts “i” (which makes a word negative) “regarder” (Old French for 'watch') and “less” (which also makes a word negative). They would then be annoyed by the double negative contained in the word, which makes it invalid.

The Organic Language Perspective

Unlike these other three word perspectives that seek to create a sense of cemented order and weight in words, the organic language perspective holds that language is not a solid to be contained but a liquid to let flow. People with this perspective are happy to include new words into the language, including stealing them from any other language. Needless to say, these people annoy Grammar Nazis a lot. However, they do deserve credit for the fact that an open language encourages new ideas and new ways of thinking. If language is constantly evolving then we can adopt new concepts from other languages and freely incorporate them into our own so that our words can be ever-more precise and dynamic. The organic language perspective would not be bothered by the word “irregardless” because they would simply see it as the natural evolution of the word as humans use it, and perhaps even like it aesthetically because it has more syllables and might sound prettier.

The Utilitarian Perspective

People who use words frequently begin to see them much like a doctor sees blood, poop, bodies, and guts in that none of them disturb or even bother these word users. They don't care about word origins or language purity, and can sit down and talk about expletives without thinking twice because they have a utilitarian perspective on words. For these people, words are simply a collection of pieces used to create sentences; there is no such thing as a word that is inherently bad, good, correct, or incorrect, only words being used for those effects. They see no problem in using the sorts of word pieces that the deconstructed word people analyze, to chop up and surgically create new words as they need them. This helps them to get along with organic language people but not so much with original meaning people. Those with this word perspective also clash with people for who believe that words have power, as they unthinkingly use words that evoke emotional responses in others. Someone with the utilitarian perspective would look at the word “irregardless” and simply see it as a neutral word that could be used in dialogue for the sorts of characters who would use that type of word. And if “irregardless” ever replaced “regardless” it would be of no grievous consequence as it serves the exact same function.

The Cultural Influencing Perspective

The last sort of perspective we will be looking at are those who analyze language and its effects on culture. From the cultural influencing perspective, words are what shape how we think about the world and how we behave in our day-to-day lives. The problem they frequently encounter in trying to implement this theory is a valid “which comes first the chicken or the egg” sort of argument; but this does not mean that their points should be disregarded. We've all heard the stories of Eskimos who know and can discuss snow on a higher intellectual and conscious level simply because they have so many more words for it. People with the cultural influencing perspective will generally prefer writing that is idyllic in how language should be, as opposed to accurately representing language how it is, so that they can be challenged and grow when they read. Someone with this perspective might look at a word like “irregardless” and be annoyed that you are allowing an illogical and unnecessary word into the minds of readers, and subconsciously influencing them to use it.

Note that most people do not choose which of these groups they fall into and they generally fall into several of them to varying degrees. It is simply a matter of your culture, the inherent nature of who you are as a person, and your life experiences. Also, there are likely more theories on how words work and perhaps more official terms, but these were the ones I've become aware of in my life and the best terms I knew for describing them.

Tip 4: Consider the difference between respect with words vs political correctness.

I've noticed that there has been a lot of discussion and heated debates between “politically correct” people and “anti-politically correct” people on the topic of what is appropriate to show in art. On the furthest extreme for political correctness, you have people saying that we should ban all words that make people feel bad (in one of my university classrooms, people argued so far as to ban older books that actually served to combat racism in their time, like Huckleberry Finn, for their use of racial slurs). On the other hand you have the people who decry political correctness and go as far as to use their words to treat other ethnic/cultural groups like trash, and then excuse their bigotry by saying they “just call it like they see it”. Our job as writers is to try to show the true condition of the world while being respectful of our beloved readers. That being said, there are words and terms that will genuinely make people feel bad; after all, if you were called by a derogatory term all your life it would only be natural for that word to trigger painful emotions whenever you encountered it. But there are times when you need to make your audience feel painful emotions, particularly when showing the difficult truth about the condition of our world and how people are genuinely being treated. Just don't act like that difficult content is nothing; treat it with the respect and gravity that it deserves (or in dark comedy, use those words to point a finger at hatred or to strip it of its power) and address the people who will be hurt by your real and politically incorrect content with the respect and gravity that they deserve. Lastly, remember that genuine respect means treating your audience like strong humans who are brave enough and emotionally capable of handling difficult topics when those topics are presented reasonably.

Tip 5: Understand how a writer uses words.

Now that we've seen many very contradicting theories for how words work, which one is the true one by which writers should ascribe? Well the answer, unfortunately, is all of them. Our goal as writers is to use arbitrary symbols in order to create complex pictures and videos within our readers' imaginations; that's what writing is. So whether it boils down to how each of our readers perceives words, whether its a matter of connotation, or whether they have uncontrollable emotional connections to words, their perception of the words we use in writing will drastically alter the meaning of the story that you are trying to tell and dictate how that video plays out in their head. And the difficult truth for writers is that we have to take all perspectives on how words work into consideration when we write, and then do our best to communicate in a way that will be most universal in conveying the exact imagery that forms the story in a reader's imagination. That does not mean that we have to walk on egg-shells; in fact, part of the reader's job is to also try to find the intended meaning in what they are reading instead of looking for an excuse to be confused or offended. It simply means that, like with any respectful and healthy relationship, we have to meet our audience half-way and try our best to be aware of them when choosing the words in our novels. You'll never be able to please everybody but you should never let that stop you from acting with kindness, strength, honor, and dignity … whatever those words mean to you.

Write-a-Novel Exercise 7.4

Choose a single chapter in Act I of your novel which best exemplifies the pace and tone of the rest of the story. Keep in mind when choosing this chapter, that it will be the one critiqued by the group, the one you will use in all of these exercises, as well as the one you will use to cross reference with the rest of your novel when you work on your next draft (in order to transfer the same types of edits to those chapters as you have done to this one). Once you have chosen a chapter, use the tips listed above to redraft it.

Please do not participate in this exercise until you have a complete first draft of your novel. Criticism, given before a first draft is completed, has a powerful discouraging effect for the writer. Also, please abstain from making other sorts of edits to your chapter, as we want to make our focus as specific and precise as possible with each exercise.

For those critiquing, please make you suggestions only relevant to the topic at hand. We will be going through a large variety of editing exercises, and your critiques will serve best when given at the appropriate time. As always, please make your critiques honest and hold nothing back, while remaining polite and uplifting. We want to encourage one another to succeed by telling them the truth about their flaws while uplifting their strengths and potential.

Writers, I advise you to always keep a copy of every draft you've ever written, no matter how bad. The contrast is important for seeing your own abilities grow, as well as for teaching others later down the road. Additionally, having a backup copy of the original file will make you subconsciously feel free to redraft, cut, and change the text, as the original will always be there if you decide you liked it or some element of it better. So keep a record of all of the many drafts you will create.

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svrtnsse's avatar
This is a really nice write-up. I especially like how you're define different categories depending on how readers relate to words. It's something that I've had a hunch about but haven't seen written down anywhere in the past. 

I also like the bit about connotations, how words sort of come with an emotional baggage. I believe this is something really powerful, the connotations of a word can, and will, spill over onto the rest of your sentence or paragraph and can have a huge impact on how a reader perceives your story.

Finally, if you want to complicate things even more, consider how non-native speakers relate to words. English isn't my native language, and I've often found that my relationship to words is different than native speakers. A word that sounds silly to me may be completely serious to a native speaker, and the other way around.
DesdemonaDeBlake's avatar
I'm glad you enjoyed it :) 

Yes, non-native speakers view our words much differently. And the interesting think to note is that every different language perceives words in other languages differently ... so a Swedish speaker will have a completely different perspective on an English word than a Spanish speaker would. That topic would merit a book or two in and of itself, haha. 
starboltarts's avatar
On one extra thought. Given there being a nineish different points there, by my count I think, do you think any particulars are harder than the rest? Do you, yourself find any of those tips/perspectives harder to practically apply than others? I often find a muddling of them when I'm considering sentence wording in my own writes.

Also, by reckoned thought, the style I use for these messages is a tricky one to pinpoint, on those perspectives. Closest putt being Organic, I think.
Do you have a preference to one of them yourself?
DesdemonaDeBlake's avatar
I have the most trouble with connotations .. not understanding them but failing to see them when I'm writing. Then I go through my novel during the editing process and realize some of the funny/horrible/horrifying connotations created by my word choices, that I am not trying to create. 

For me, it just depends on the situation. I actually feel each of them, every now and again--particularly with words I think are important. But as far as the one I most find myself falling into most ... its probably utilitarian. That one gets me into trouble every now and again. 
Leopold002's avatar
As always, food for thought. :) (Smile) 
DesdemonaDeBlake's avatar
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