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Birch Bay Public Market

Friday, May 10 through the end of summer, Cathy and I will be selling her hand-made soaps, lotions, and toiletries, along with my photography, note cards, calenders, books, etc.

Come see us!

Across the street from the C Shop

4825 Alderson Road, Birch Bay, Washington 98230

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I had an automated blogroll here, powered by Google Reader, but Google, in its near-infinite lack of wisdom, killed Google Reader. Prior to this murder, all I had to do to put a blog on my blogroll (or to take it off) was to place it in a Reader folder called, appropriately enough, "blogroll" (or, of course, to remove it). I use The Old Reader now for following blogs, but it seems to have no way to something similar regarding the blogroll. If you know of a way to do this, please let me know.

The Importance of Diction

As all three of my regular readers know, I have a list of what I call “the basic tools of the writer.” These are (in no particular order) spelling, punctuation, diction, syntax, and grammar. I periodically get emails about one or another of this list, typically doing one of two things: either telling me what a whack-job I am for thinking there are right ways or wrong ways to spell things, order words in a sentence, or choose among the various forms and inflections a word offers, or asking me what in the world diction is.

To the first, I say that if teh is a perfectly valid way to spell the, then so is xdz. If there is no “correct” spelling, then how can any spelling possibly be incorrect? If there is no “correct” syntax (the branch of grammar dealing with the construction of sentences), then “He threw the ball to her” and “He threw her to the ball” obviously mean exactly the same thing. Yes, language changes. Words are made up, every single one of them, and there is nothing in life that says we’re done doing that. Words will be made up every day in every language, words will change meanings, words will change spellings. But unless and until a new spelling or meaning ceases to be seen as sub-standard, then if you use it, your writing will be seen, by extension, as sub-standard. If that’s what you want, that’s fine by me.

To the second group, the ones asking what diction is, I say this:

Diction (as in dictionary) is word choice.

Stories are made up of words (and words inherently tell, they do not show, but that’s a different rant). Word choice may very well be the single most important tool an author has available. One of the most memorable assignments from all of the creative writing classes I ever took (all of which were in high school – all my post-secondary education is in industrial design and manufacturing technology) was this:

  • Pick a story from today’s news. Pick one for which you can see a “pro” side and a “con” side, such as a report of an alleged crime, in which you can assume guilt or innocence.
  • Get out your trusty thesaurus and change the article. You’re going to do this twice, once making the article strongly “pro,” and once making it strongly “con.”
  • You’re going to do this solely by replacing words with different words, words listed as synonyms of the word you’re changing.

Do not add or subtract anything, do not use any scare quotes (the “alleged” suspect, etc), don’t use any antonyms. Replace every word you think needs to be changed, but only with a synonym. You might be amazed at how differently you look at words (and at the news stories you read) after trying this a few times.

The word you’re looking for isn’t just different.

It’s the right word. There is one perfect word for the use you have in mind. There are a bunch more that are close enough and will work, and there are a bunch of choices that are just plain wrong, synonym or not. You can’t just change words because they seem too simple, or too common, or too over-used. Pick a register of diction and use it, at least for that one character, or that particular encounter, or whatever. When a character says “Put on your trousers,” we get an entirely different resonance than if the character says “Put on your pants.” The words themselves carry different denotations and different connotational clouds, and the use of a particular word also says something about the character.

So watch your diction!

Further reading:

How to Write Badly Well, 11 Jan 2010

There’s No Such Thing as a Synonym

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