Monday, November 14, 2011

How To Revise With Diction and Syntax

Jo Robertson
It is our pleasure to welcome Jo Robertson to our blog. A former high school English teacher, Jo lives in northern California, near the beautiful Sierra Nevada foothills. She enjoys reading, scrapbooking, and discussing the latest in books, movies, and television shows. Any "spare" time she has is spent enjoying her seven children and sixteen grandchildren, who bring a great deal of joy to her life.

When her Advanced Placement English students challenged her to quit talking about writing and "just do it," she wrote her first completed manuscript, THE WATCHER,  which won the 2006 Golden Heart Award for romantic suspense. Her latest book, THE AVENGER, is  the 2007 Daphne contest winner. 
After reading, please leave a comment or ask a question. Jo is ready to help.

Revision with Diction and Syntax
One of the greatest tools in the author's arsenal of revision and rewrites is working with language. Once you've got your plot and pacing well defined, what can you do to elevate your book above the common fray? What sets your story apart from the myriads available to readers?

You've written the draft, tightened the plot, and strengthened the pacing. What's next?

We talk a lot about an author's voice, but often writers fail to understand the concept. Voice is the unique tone of your writing; if your voice is strong, it's as distinguishable from another writer as fingerprints. It's your writing DNA and arises from two strong writing elements many authors pay little attention to: diction and syntax.

Diction is word choice and includes tone, which is the attitude of the writer toward her subject, characters, or writing. Diction is the foundation of voice. Effective writers use words that are clear, concrete, and precise. Largely this can be done by skillful understanding of words' denotation (the literal, dictionary definition of the word) and connotation (the implied or suggested meaning of a word, the emotional tag).

Consider the words "gaunt" and "slim." Both have the same denotations – both mean extremely thin.

Example: Your character hasn't seen her friend since last Christmas and she's lost a lot of weight. When Sara first sees Jane, she exclaims, "Oh, my gosh, you've lost weight! You look so ______." Consider the words you could use and how they convey the precise meaning you want.

skinny, thin, slender, gaunt, slim, trim, tiny, petite, svelte

Connotatively "gaunt" evokes memory of a concentration camp survivor or a cadaver. "Skinny" suggests too thin, perhaps even anorexic.

If you want your character to be a bit snarky, you will show her character by using "skinny," which has a negative connotation (not as negative as "gaunt," but that'd be going too far). If you want to convey sincere congratulations, your character might use "slender" or "slim."

Diction, then, is word choice, a powerful tool.
As a writer, you have great power over diction and an entire world of words to use. I advise my student never to use a thesaurus. If you don't know a word already, you're likely to misuse it in context.

If you need a word bank, start one of your own. When you read or hear interesting or evocative words, type them into your word bank and note how they're used. Play attention to their connotations as well as their denotation. Study their rhythm. Or you might consider investing in a good synonym dictionary. The difference between this kind of dictionary and a thesaurus is that the synonym dictionary will jog your memory for words you (hopefully) already have in your mental lexicon.

Another example: "Plump" and "obese" are denotatively the same – they mean overweight – but "plump" has a more positive connotation (pleasingly plump) suggesting a well-rounded or over-endowed person, while "obese" is a clinical term and suggests being grossly overweight.

Consider what the writer does connotatively with the underlined words in the following sentence:
The finalist surveyed the audience, clutching the RITA statue and congratulating herself for snatching the highest honor in the profession's contest.

All four words suggest that the finalist stole the honor from the other contestants, rather than achieved it fairly. The tone is gloating; the finalist surveys her fellow contenders as one looking down upon the audience.

Choose words that fit the tone of the passage or character. Don't overreach for these words, but do consider how tone is conveyed through your word choice. Your voice is closely connected to your diction.

The second tool we rarely talk about is syntax. Syntax is the arrangement of words, phrases, or clauses in a sentence or passage. It involves a number of devices like sentence structure and phrasing.

Attention to syntax is more useful in your narration than your dialogue, but is important.

A. Sentence structure includes different kinds and types of sentences, rhetorical question, specific punctuation, and specific patterns of phrases and sentences within a passage.

Let's look at this periodic sentence:

The man died because the ambulance arrived late.

Because the ambulance arrived late, the man died.

The second sentence is arranged so that tension is built as the reader waits to find out what happened; the first one tells you up front. Which is better for your writing purpose?

An example from Jane Austen: "The garden sloping to the road, the houses standing in it, the green pales and the laurel hedge, everything declared they were arriving."

The periodic sentence delays the important message (they were arriving); plus Austen has this lovely layering of phrases as she builds toward the final clause.

B. Phrasing refers to the placement and variation of phrases in sentences, parallel structure, and purposeful repetition.

Caveat! The point of understanding and using these syntactical devices is to underscore or enhance your content. Not for showing off! Whatever syntactical devices you use should (a) mirror the content and (b) not detract from the story.

Look at this passage from Patrick Henry's Speech to the Virginia Convention:

"Is life so dear or peace so sweet as to be purchased at the price or chains and slavery?"

Rhetorical question – no answer expected or needed. Also notice the nice alliteration of the letter "p."

Another syntactical device is varying sentence structure in a passage. Simple sentences, compound sentences, complex, compound-complex sentences – all can be controlled by the writer to deliver a desired effect.

Note in the example below how J.D. Robb (Naked in Death) has wedged the complex sentence between two simple sentences. Consider the effect on the reader.

"She woke in the dark. Through the slats on the window shades, the first murky hint of dawn slipped, slanting shadowy bars over the bed. It was like waking in a cell."

Also from the same book:
"He had a vision of himself dragging her to the floor, pounding himself into her until her screams echoed like gunshots, and his release erupted like blood."

Note the parallelism in the two participles (dragging and pounding) and the parallel similes ("like gunshots" and "like blood"). This is particularly evocative because in this scene Roarke and Eve are in the gun collection room, surrounded by the implements of death and blood. The primitive sexual feelings he has are underscored by the environment.

Parallel structure from Sherry Thomas' Private Arrangements:
"His kiss was as light as meringue, as gentle as the opening notes of Moonlight Sonata, and as nourishing as the first rain of spring after an endless winter drought."

Not only does she maintain the parallelism with the "as – as" construction, but each subsequent phrase is longer than the one before it. If she'd put the last phrase in the middle of the sentence, the meter and continuity and smoothness of the sentence would be lost.

Note: Good writers may do this kind of construction subconsciously (leaving the analysis to us English teachers) or deliberately, but they never allow the syntax to drive them. They drive their syntax.

Diction and syntax also account for rhythm. The English language is a series of accented and unaccented syllables that can be arranged to be very pleasant or very jarring to the ear.

During revision or rewrites consider where you've placed words, phrases, and sentences for maximum effect. Choose words that convey the tone you've intended. A strong use of these devices enhances your voice. For example, we could read passages by Hemingway and Faulkner and easily distinguish between them. Their voices are that distinctive.

Revision is not editing. Editing attends to the mechanics of the language. Manipulating the language to a specific purpose – that's revision!


Questions? Comments?

As a writer what do you consider the most effective tool in your arsenal? Any pet peeves or pitfalls? Share! Inquiring minds want to know.


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Ruby Johnson said...

Thanks for visiting our blog. I love the idea of a word bank. I like to save phrases and perhaps it's the same.

Anonymous said...

When you mention syntax, it reminds me of a secretary I once had. She could never understand how my boss had gained his position in the business. The day he asked for the dati versus data she finally said, "That man's syntax and grammar is surely going to kill me or him one day." He left the company for a bigger promotion!

Anonymous said...

I think you've coined a new term—word manipulators! I liked the content. I never fail to learn something on this blog.

Jo Robertson said...

Hi, everyone! Thanks to the Greater Fort Worth Writers and especially to Ruby for hosting me today. Although we love our readers, of course, it's always great fun for me to discourse with writers. I find our brains are a bit different from other artists!

jo robertson said...

This is a lovely site, Anonymous. I particularly love the night skyscape. I've never been to Texas and I feel like I'm missing a big cultural experience LOL.

jo robertson said...

Hi, Ruby. I find, whether you're a professional writer, a novice, a poet, or just want to "play" with the language, a word bank is a delightful tool.

jo robertson said...

Anonymous said, "She could never understand how my boss had gained his position in the business."

LOL at this comment. My response would be the boss MUST have a great personal assistant. My husband (a PhD) always said, "Why should I bother with that stuff when I have a great secretary?"

Trish Milburn (Tricia Mills) said...

Hi, Jo. Great post. I love the idea of a word bank. I keep files with story ideas, pictures of potential characters, even book titles, but I'd never though of perhaps keeping a list of interesting words.

I love my The Synonym Finder by J.I. Rodale. I find it more useful in my writing than a regular thesaurus.

Anna Campbell said...

Jo, what a great piece. I've just been through the process of revising a manuscript before I send it to my editor and I was thinking about all that stuff - seriously gives you a headache after a while but it's worthwhile for the finished product. I have a word bank although I called it a notebook. It now has a new fancy moniker! I also make note of interesting names (including places - finding titles for all those aristocrats gets to be touch after a couple of books). Always comes in handy.

Christina Brooke said...

Marvellous post, Jo! I think every writer should read it!

I love the cadence of language and recall my first real life lesson in that when my boss at a law firm used to finesse letters to convey polite incredulity or a subtle slap upside the head to the person reading it. It's amazing how emotionally evocative you can be in the dryest business letter just by how you choose your words!

Anonymous said...

J. Bennett - What a great article, thank you Jo! I have to admit I abuse my thesaurus when the synapses refuse to fire and I find myself repeating a word awkwardly. I love the idea of a personal word bank.

You've included some wonderful and insightful suggestions here, very very helpful :)

Jo Robertson said...

Hi, Trish, thanks for taking the time to stop by from Romance Bandits. I know you're deep in revisions.

You said, "I love my The Synonym Finder by J.I. Rodale. I find it more useful in my writing than a regular thesaurus."

Absolutely! I couldn't do without my synonym dictionary. I find myself getting brain freezes all the time now. Mine is Sisson's "Synonyms," which has a 1969 copyright date, so it's probably time for me to get a new one. I'll try yours!

Jo Robertson said...

Hi, Anna C.! So glad you could stop by from Down Under. I know you folks are having some grand weather there now!

LOL, on the notebook. I actually got the idea of a "word bank" from an elementary teacher. Little kids brought in their favorite words (usually they're words that are kind of onomatopoetic -- you know, cool sounding words like "splat" and "sizzle"). They'd put them on a large colorfully decorated bulletin board.

Jo Robertson said...

That's one of the things I find difficult about writing a series, Anna. Keeping all the names straight! I imagine it's much harder with aristocratic names and titles all all!

Jeanne (AKA The Duchesse) said...

Oooh, Syntax! Hi Jo! Great blog over here, and yours is a great post to add to it.

I'm LOL about the boss with bad grammer. If I had a dollar for every one of, rich woman. Grins. And I had a boss tell me one time, "I don't need to know how'ta speak right 'r nuthin' that's why I have you markit-in flaks."

Yeah, and he needed a brain transplant to go with it. Hahaha!

Great post, I learned stuff, which I love, and I now have a new book-buy in Trish's Synonym Finder. I think mine is right at as old as yours Jo, with a '71 copyright date if I remember correctly. (I looked not long ago when the spine binding fell of...)

Jo Robertson said...

Oh, my Christine, that tickled my funny bone. I imagine that many of the persons on the receiving end of those "jabbing" letters didn't "get it."

Being politely denigrating (that's a paradox!) is one of the great ploys of the Regency novels.

Jo Robertson said...

Thanks so much, J. Bennett, what kind words.

You said, "I have to admit I abuse my thesaurus when the synapses refuse to fire and I find myself repeating a word awkwardly."

Ah, those damned old synapses. I'm always amazed how frequently I repeat fairly pedestrian words or their word forms within a few short sentences. It's like my brain gets stuck in a rut!

Jo Robertson said...

Hey, Jeanne, another wonderful Bandita! You're got that dialect right smack on target!

I was listening to NPR this morning, a British journalist interviewing a Syrian woman, obviously well educated, but was no match for the man because, duh, well, English wasn't her first language. I could almost hear her brain furiously translating his challenges and then re-translating to respond. Exhausting!

Helen Hardt said...

Excellent post, Jo, and so informative. To answer your question, as a romance and erotic romance writer, my most effective tool is sensory detail.

Anna Sugden said...

Fascinating post, Jo - I loved your examples and explanations. I don't remember much about grammar lessons, but I know what sounds right/is right and what isn't. (which probably means the lessons are embedded somewhere in my sub-conscious *gg*)

I write both contemporary and romantic suspense. The way I write them, the thought process behind vocabulary choice and syntax in particular, is very different. I don't know how people can write several books at once, especially in different genres.

Oh, and I love my Thesaurus!

Nancy said...

Jo, you know I love words and wordplay. The New York Times crossword wakes up my brain at the start of every day.

These are all great examples. Unfortunately, parallel structure and modifier placement don't get much attention in school anymore. As a result, I read sentences in published novels that feel awkward, that jolt me out of the stories they're supposed to be relating. It's really a shame. For all its vagaries, English has great emotive power, but poor syntax undercuts it.

One of my favorite passages in any book comes from Tolkien's The Return of the King. During the siege of Minas Tirith, Gandalf and Pippin are barricaded in the citadel, waiting for the Orcs to break through, expecting to make a fatal stand. They're discussing death and afterlife when the sun rises and a rooster, oblivious to the conflict, crows. Then there's another sound, horns, "great horns blowing in the morning," echoing off the mountainside because "Rohan had come at last."

The words pack a mighty punch, in part because of the phrasing. Of course, Tolkien understood language as very few people do.

Jo Robertson said...

Hi, Helen, thanks for stopping by and answering the question.

Detail and diction are so closely associated that I usually taught the two devices together. Certainly the choice of specific words within the sensory detail is critical.

It's strange how certain words are very evocative of sensuality and others are complete turnoffs, isn't it?

I was revising a scene the other day and realized I'd written something about the hero trailing kisses across the heroine's clavicle? "Clavicle???" Was I nuts? That's certainly a strong medical word, not very romantic.

Even something as straight forward as "mouth" vs. "lips" can be choices the writer has to weigh.

Jo Robertson said...

Hi, Vrai Anna, thanks so much for stopping by! I'm glad you love your thesaurus, but I also know that as a former teacher, you already have an excellent handle on the words in the thesaurus. It's the inexperienced writer who tends to use words whose connotations are not precisely what she/he intended.

The romantic suspense genre is a great place to develop diction, I think. So many opportunities for very evocative action words.

Jo Robertson said...

Hi, fellow Bandita Nancy! Great example. Tolkien was one of the great writers of the 20th century, along with C.S. Lewis (IMO) who was a good friend.

I've become enthralled lately with George R.R. Martin's Song of Fire and Ice series. While I don't think Martin's in the same literary category as Tolkien, his stories make for some startling lovely and memorable lines.

Jo Robertson said...

Hi, everyone! I'm just dragging myself awake here on the "left coast." I hope everyone's having a great writing/revision day.

I'm in the middle of my third book in a romantic thriller trilogy, and of course, revision is where the real work is done.

I hope our conversation didn't get too "literary" for you, but I've found the single most important things that's helped me as a writer is teaching my Advanced Placement seniors literary analysis. Seeing what other writers have done, whether it's literary fiction or genre fiction, helps me in my own writing.

What about you? What's the single most important thing you've learned on your journey to publication?

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