Saturday, March 23, 2013

Specific Choices


In March with the whole lion and lamb thing coming and going, we expect sudden changes of weather, from calm and mild to ferocious winds and cold, so it's a good time to talk about fighting chaos or enjoying clarity, in other words, choices. In this case, specific and concise wording in writing. My students, who are learning non-fiction academic writing, not fiction, still need to learn how one word can add layers of meaning. A meaning they don't have to explain, because the word has done the work for them. One of my favorite examples follows.

A chain link fence surrounds my girlfriend's(boyfriend's) house--change the pronoun to fit yourself accordingly:

Scenario 1) As I reach the gate and lift the latch, a dog comes charging and growling out of the shrubbery. It lunges against the gate, snapping.

Scenario 2) As I reach the gate and lift the latch, a Chihuahua comes charging and growling out of the shrubbery. It lunges against the gate, snapping.

Scenario 3) As I reach the gate and lift the latch, a Rottweiler comes charging and growling out of the shrubbery. It lunges against the gate, snapping.

What is your reaction to each scenario?
Probably: 1) potential risk; 2) limited perhaps comic hazard; 3) imminent threat.

This happens because one word changed. Each situation raises specific responses in the character the reader intuits. Yes a Chihuahua can bite, but a Rottweiler can rip off your face. The character will act accordingly. The more specific the situation, the greater the visceral reaction the reader has. Like the winds of March, nouns and verb choice can dramatically change a situation. One other benefit occurs: elimination of unnecessary explanation makes the writing more concise.

5 comments:

Big Mike said...

Excellent point. In a workshop I've given I suggest your goal should be to become a word sculpture for the same reason you offer. I kept an alphabetically sorted file for all the detailed meanings of general words. For example instead of "walk" you have march, saunter, creep, amble, skip, lollop, and a dozen more possibilities, each conveying a much more specific image in a readers mind then the word "walk".

Michael Davis (Davisstories.com)
Author of the Year (2008 and 2009)
Award of Excellence (2012)


lizfountain said...

I love that example, Rhobin - and since I teach academic writing to doctoral students, I'd love to steal, er, "borrow" it or something quite like it to show them how a single word choice can make a huge difference in the reader's mind.

Ute Carbone said...

Great post, Rhobin. When I was doing writing workshops, specifics were always something I stressed. The words writers chose are so important.

Rhobin Lee Courtright said...

Thanks for your comments. It's not a hard concept to get across, but I find beginners find it is hard to put into practice without going overboard with the thesaurus. I'd be proud if you...er, steal, this example, Liz.

Julie Eberhart Painter said...

Good examples, Rhobin.