Sunday, January 4, 2015

Loud and Clear: Part 4: The Technical Elements of Voice: Word Choice

First off, Happy New Year! I'm always excited for the flip of the calendar, but this particular turn into January is something I've been waiting for since May 2013 because it means, we are finally in the calendar year that my debut novel, Becoming Jinn, hits shelves! Congratulations to all the 2015ers out there!
Okay, and now back to our regularly scheduled programming: our series on voice!
This month, I finish our discussion on the technical elements—the writing mechanics—that play a direct role in voice by focusing on word choice. In next month’s post—the final in this five-part series on voice—I’ll offer some tips and tricks you can use to find your writing voice. (For the first part in this series in which I define voice, click here; the second part on POV can be found here; and the third part on tense, grammar and punctuation, and sentence structure can be found here.)
Word Choice
To begin this discussion on word choice, I’d like to return to an author I've used previously in this series: it's an example from Eleanor and Park, one of my favorite books from one of my favorite writers, Rainbow Rowell.

Here, I’m going to start with a purposely subpar version of a scene in Eleanor and Park and follow it up with the actual published version.

The poor imitation:

Eleanor came home from school. Her mom followed her into her younger sister and brothers’ bedroom. Eleanor peered at the clothes on her bed.
“I found money in the laundry,” her mom said, giving Eleanor a knowing glance.
Eleanor’s stomach twisted into knots. She knew they could only afford used clothes and other small things. She hated that Ritchie spent most of their money at the bar. It was lucky they had anything, really.

The terrific original (published excerpt from Eleanor and Park by Rainbow Rowell):

When Eleanor got home from school, her mom followed her into the kids’ room. There were two new pairs of Goodwill jeans folded on the top bunk.
“I found some money when I was doing laundry,” her mom said. Which meant Ritchie had accidentally left money in his pants. If he came home drunk, he’d never ask about it--he’d just assume he spent it at the bar.
Whenever her mom found money, she tried to spend it on things Ritchie would never notice. Clothes for Eleanor. New underwear for Ben. Cans of tuna fish and bags of flour. Things that could be hidden in drawers or cupboards.
Her mom had become some sort of genius double agent since she hooked up with Ritchie. It was like she was keeping them all alive behind his back.

While there are a lot of differences, there are some key pieces in terms of word choice. Let’s look at the first paragraph. The imitation says, “younger sister and brothers’ bedroom.” The original says “kid’s room.” If you’ve read the book, you know Eleanor refers to her siblings as “the kids”. This is Eleanor’s voice shining through. Using “kids” instead of sister or brother is a word choice that speaks directly to creating a distinct voice for Eleanor.
Moving on to the next paragraph, the imitation uses generic words while the original uses specific, purposeful words. For example, the original uses “Goodwill jeans” instead of “clothes.” It uses “top bunk” instead of “bed”. Think about how much we learn about Eleanor and her family simply from the use of specific versus generic words. This plays out fully in the complete excerpt here.
This is what word choice is all about: It’s being specific instead of general. It’s cutting words that are unnecessary. It’s making sure the details matter.
Of course there are other things that shine in Rainbow Rowell’s piece that contribute to great writing voice: things like vivid verbs and turn of phrase (and incredible talent! *fangirling*).
But overall, word choice in terms of voice can be boiled down to small changes that make a world of difference.
And so this post concludes the section on the technical elements of voice. I hope you can see now that voice isn’t some elusive thing that is difficult to grasp. It’s not something you have or don’t have. I think a lot of voice is simply paying attention to the details. And knowing which details are the most important to pay attention to.
That's what the posts in this series so far should be showing you. Point of view, tense, grammar and punctuation, sentence structure, and word choice all have a direct role in creating a unique voice.

In next month’s final post in the series, I’ll give you some tips and exercises you can use to do what this series is all about: Find your writing voice.

Lori Goldstein is the author of Becoming Jinn (now available for preorder; Feiwel and Friends/Macmillan, May 12, 2015, sequel, Spring 2016). With a degree in journalism and more than 10 years of experience, Lori is a freelance copyeditor and manuscript consultant for all genres. She focuses on the nitty-gritty, letting writers focus on the writing.

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