Word Choice, Mood, and the Poetic Soul

#1
When I started to take writing more seriously as something I wanted to become better at, I read Stephen King's On Writing and advice from the internet and took it all absolutely to heart. They all said to write simply, and so I did. I tried to cut out as much unnecessary fluff as I could from my writing. I was direct. I dreaded purple prose. I tried to make it as factual as I could. I said only what I meant, and focused on story and character. But I missed something important.

My writing became dulled. Flavourless. Almost text-book factual. Leaned more on telling than showing. I had passion for the subject, but the prose was flat. I was not conveying the mood. I faltered at descriptions. What was missing? 

I'm not a poetic soul. At least I have never once thought of myself that way. I never cared as much about the words as I cared about the stories. When I finish reading a book I can't quote you anything, but I could tell you passionately about what the characters did. But it was the words that made the world come alive. Word choice is so important. I only started to understand this watching a youtube video about how to make prose more interesting. I am sad to admit it probably would not have occurred to me otherwise. 

I had thought word-choice was only saying what you meant to say. He climbed the tree. He walked to her house. These are fine and direct, but they don't really do anything else. I needed to level up. Those verbs and those nouns aren't telling you anything more interesting, or showing you anything about the people doing them. 

Books were on top of the chair. (dull. boring. My entire problem) > Books sat on the chair? (no, books can't really sit, they haven't legs.) >  The weight of a dozen hardback novels (specific image) pressed (specific atmospheric verb) the chair into the carpet (adds environment detail/effect). (Is this purple? I don't think so but let me know if you do!)

I am newly awakened to this particular aspect of writing. So I made this thread to introduce people like myself to the importance of word-choice to make writing better. I also made it to beg any passersby to add their own tips and tricks to improve word-choice. Do you use specific thesaurus websites? Do you have word diaries? Phone apps? Share your secrets! I feel like this is definitely not talked about enough!

Re: Word Choice, Mood, and the Poetic Soul

#2
So, I should preface this with - I do all this in editing. When I write, I write whatever pops into my mind first. After that, I go back over what I wrote and ask myself: "Can I say this in fewer words?" I'll often cut 20-30% off my word-count.

Anyways. My general advice for someone who wants to write more cleanly without losing mood or style is to try and pick better verbs and nouns, but cut adjectives and adverbs as much as possible.

In your example, for instance, I might cut either 'a dozen' or 'hardback', depending on if they're important to the scene. Or if it fits the location/mood, I might replace it with something like 'tomes' - a word that combines the ideas of 'heavy' and 'book'.

I'd also cut 'the weight of' - saying simply that 'a dozen hardback novels pressed' implies weight strongly enough in my mind, unless focusing on 'the weight' is important. This sort of de-duplication is especially useful to me when editing for simplicity. There are a lot of words that are just fluff when I write.

I might also replace 'pressed', if there's another verb that fits better. Maybe not, though; while I do like more evocative verbs, there's a point where trying too hard ends up reading like... well, trying too hard. :P It starts to get that thesaurus feel. 'A dozen tomes burdened the chair' is both fairly short and fairly evocative - but while it might fit in a wizard's lab, it'll look weird in a middle-school girl's room.

I also wouldn't add the bit about the carpet - unless the carpet is important to the scene. Even then, I might give it it's own description, instead. If it's important, tacking it onto the end of another description lowers the amount of attention it'll get.

Well, I tend to focus a lot on what I'm trying to convey. My take on the 'write simply' advice is something along the lines of - 'use as few words as possible to convey what you're aiming for, but sometimes what you're aiming for needs extra words.'

Purple prose (while widely decried) is a legitimate style, and there are occasions when you'd actually want that style in your story. (Say, an extremely overwrought love letter.) In that case, to get the effect you want, 'as few words as possible' would stop right at the edge of purple prose.

Anyways, I dunno if that's helpful. If you're interested in reading a book on this sort of editing, Constance Hale's 'Sin and Syntax' attempts to give advice on writing more vibrantly without sacrificing meaning. It's alright, although I'd check if a library has it - I didn't like it enough to recommend paying actual money for it. :P

Re: Word Choice, Mood, and the Poetic Soul

#3
Oh this is a wonderful subject! I think about poetic prose all the time. I have a poem in three parts that tells the tale of a haunted house, where 'I coiled in a corner / I groveled in fear / Hideous monsters were everywhere here!'

You know, poetry was used in the days of yore because the rhyme and structure made it easier to remember a tale when paper and ink were hard to come by. A further benefit came through the fact that the story was less likely to change over time, as the meter and beat made in hard to alter the words.

There's no need anymore to write in rhyme of course, but there is good reason to pay heed to meter and beat. Consider the first two lines as if they were written as a sentence:

I coiled in a corner and groveled in fear.

That is a perfectly balanced sentence. When you include the fullstop at the end, it is six syllables followed by six more syllables, separated by the hidden Oxford comma between CORNER and AND. Not only that, but the accented syllables also line up: da DUM da da DUM da

i COILED in a COR-ner and GROV-eled in FEAR-(.)

You don't notice things like this so much when you're reading a novel, as a small sentence like that will fly by in a second. But as the story progresses and sentences like this accumulate, the reader senses the balance and structure of the prose, and finds it enjoyable, regardless of what's being said.

Let's look at the other sentence now. One wouldn't normally say EVERYWHERE HERE in a story, as the word HERE was merely added to make it rhyme with FEAR. But without that last word, the sentence is normal prose:

Hideous monsters were everywhere.

Again, this sentence is well-balanced, but for a different reason than how the first sentence was balanced. In this case, it's the modifiers. The monsters are both HIDEOUS and EVERYWHERE. These two words are both three syllables long, with the primary accent on the first syllable and the secondary accent on the last syllable.

Readers will rarely notice this fact as well, for again, the sentence flies by in an instant. But keep writing well balanced sentences and phrases -- and get better at it and be creative -- and no matter what story you are telling, people will be intrigued not only by the tale you are telling, but also by the words you choose to tell it.

😸

Re: Word Choice, Mood, and the Poetic Soul

#4
I read Sin and Syntax on this subject. Tbh, I should re-read it once more. Things like that are hard to get stuck in your head. But one thing that surely stuck was: "Good nouns and good verbs count for a lot." Because a boy can run down a lane but he can also shimmy, sprint or hop. The boy could be a baker, a policeman, a man in a pidgeon suit.
The more precise the noun and verb, the clearer and sharper the picture. This is how I work, or want to work. Finding the right ones is hard at time. And then you gotta worry about the rest too, how to make the prose sing like a symphony. Short sentences, to grab attention. And longer sentences once you have all the attention and can strike a blow to your readers imagination with a brush of lyrical words that outshine the competition.

I can only suggest to read the book, because I am obviously bad at recalling its contents.

Re: Word Choice, Mood, and the Poetic Soul

#5
This is frankly, a horribly neglected part of current writing lessons. If you look at older works before the style became dominant (Robert E Howard, H.P. Lovecraft, James Fenimore Cooper, etc.) you’ll find the prose can really hit a lot harder than the overly-simplistic method (beige prose is the opposite of purple prose btw).
Remember two words: Invoke and conjure.
Use the reader’s subconscious to your advantage, give them imagery or metaphors that will set it off on the right direction and let them do the rest. Metaphor, simile, and the connotation of word choice are all good aspects to consider. A bit of good descriptive language can really help bring the scene to life and stick with the reader. This also applies to which details of a scene you focus on and how, you’re always going to color a scene with your words, make it work for you rather than against.
There’s also the aspect of rhythm to consider. Some writers have recommended studying poetry (stick to the older stuff, the current isn’t as structured) to get a better handle on word choice.
An example from Robert E Howard:
“Hither came Conan, the Cimmerian, black-haired, sullen-eyed, sword in hand, a thief, a reaver, a slayer, with gigantic melancholies and gigantic mirth, to tread the jeweled thrones of the Earth under his sandaled feet.”
This hits so much harder than something like: “Conan the Cimmerian was a big, dark-haired, passionate, rogue armed with a sword who went on big adventures.”
We not only have a much clearer idea of who he is and his character, but also the scale and type of his adventures. It also simply sounds more exciting.

Re: Word Choice, Mood, and the Poetic Soul

#6

Not_A_Hat Wrote: Anyways. My general advice for someone who wants to write more cleanly without losing mood or style is to try and pick better verbs and nouns, but cut adjectives and adverbs as much as possible.
Thank you! Really goes to show even in trying to make a good example of what I meant, I have a long way to go! But it's inspiring too, and great advice. So much to get a handle on. Thanks for the book rec also! 


ArDeeBurger Wrote: There's no need anymore to write in rhyme of course, but there is good reason to pay heed to meter and beat.
Meter and beat are also important, you're right! Thanks for bringing that up. And this is a good guide on how to approach it. I find it is quite intimidating, but it makes such a difference! Definitely a skill to try and experiment with. :) 


Angaramwrites Wrote: Sin and Syntax on this subject
You're the second person in this thread to recommend this book! It must be worth reading. I'll definitely check it out.


Jon Wrote: This is frankly, a horribly neglected part of current writing lessons.
I know!! It's frustrating that I'm only really discovering it now. It was always 'simplify' but there's so much more to it than just using less words! And thank you for giving me a name for what I'm talking about with beige prose. That's also a good example. I did not pay enough attention to poetry in my education it seems, lol.


Re: Word Choice, Mood, and the Poetic Soul

#7
The prose and style itself is pretty much something I have never seen in lessons about writing. They tend to focus on the storyelements more than prose. I stumbled into it, and am still stumbling, after wondering how and why my words lacked impact. I am happy with the characters and plot, but something was just not right about the way the writing presented itself. It is hard to realize what is missing when you don't know what is still missing. And then I just opened up an entire new world of more things to learn.

Really wish that schools would at least do something for creative writing, the very basics. Although my school times are long past, but I doubt they changed much.

Re: Word Choice, Mood, and the Poetic Soul

#9
Kathy Wrote: It was always 'simplify' but there's so much more to it than just using less words!
This is a valid point, and one we can explore further by using the sentence you offered. So let's take a look!

The weight of a dozen hardback novels pressed the chair into the carpet.

You stressed the fact that your writing can sometimes be dull, so let's start by looking at your core sentence -- THE WEIGHT PRESSED THE CHAIR. This is a static image. The writing is passive. Nothing is really happening. It's telling more than showing. It's also a rather odd image -- a CHAIR is being PRESSED by some sort of ephemeral WEIGHT. 

By choosing a few different words and rearranging the ones you have chosen, not only can we include more of them in your core sentence, but we also can invoke action, in this case in a cause-and-effect sort of way. To highlight one way to do this, let's use a gerund.

Gerunds are such great words! They're the -ING form a verb and can be used as a noun or verb or modfier. They really brighten a sentence!

A dozen hardback novels pressed down, their weight forcing the chair into the carpet.

Our core sentence now becomes NOVELS PRESSED DOWN, FORCING THE CHAIR INTO THE CARPET. By adding just two words -- one invoking direction (DOWN) and one invoking intent (FORCING), the sentence becomes more active. We also have changed the subject of the sentence from WEIGHT to NOVELS.

But even better than that, by using the gerund FORCING, we bring THE CARPET into the core sentence, making more of the words in the sentence essential and less of them just fluff.

Gerunds are a writer's godsend. Learn to write sentences that go DOING THIS, IT (or HE or SHE or THEY) DID THAT and IT DID THIS, DOING THAT. It instantly and easily adds more action to a story.

Writing in a modern voice doesn't have to be static or sparse. What we need to learn as writers today is how to make every word important. And by writing core sentences that invoke all the images we wish to emphasize, our stories can be both succinct and colorful.

😸

Re: Word Choice, Mood, and the Poetic Soul

#11
I do think this is interesting subject. 

Prose is one of the things I always struggle with. Personally I think metaphors, descriptive words that allow us to have a better idea not of what a character is doing, but how and why are important. It is however easy to lose yourself and go into 'purple prose mode'. I also struggle with this a lot personally and I think these comments and suggestions of this thread are quite useful.

My two cents on the matter is that only through learning from books and places like here, as well as experimenting and experience, the best 
balance can be found.

Re: Word Choice, Mood, and the Poetic Soul

#13
To be honest, this is something I feel I can only do during editing. II don't have very good word recall. I know words, but to be able to recall them when I need them is a skill I do not possess. I can't even go purple prose about things because of it. Usually when I draft something, I use what I can think of at the moment and it takes more than one edit to achieve average writing.

And I recently been thinking about words and prose recently. Mostly because I read some works by Patricia McKillip and I found a author whom I actually like their prose work. I mean, I've been trying to keep things a bit more Brandson Sanderson and writing workman because that's all I felt like I could do. However, I've been feeling a bit ambitious and I want something a little more.


And this is something I can really only understand through actual reading. All the advice in the world where I can't see examples that make sense to me is  unhelpful. Hence why I don't read a lot of writing books. Advice is telling, I like showing, and to be shown in many examples. Thus I learn better through reading books.

Recently I found that Patricia McKillip seems to be perfect fit for me to learn from. Basically, she writes in a way my brain can learn from it and write stories that I greatly appreciate. Also if you want to read something of hers that is magical, The Forgotten Beasts of Eld is my recommendation to read. 

Re: Word Choice, Mood, and the Poetic Soul

#14
ArDeeBurger Wrote: A dozen hardback novels pressed down, their weight forcing the chair into the carpet.

...Unless I'm parsing this wrong, (which is always possible) in this sentence 'forcing' is being used as a present participle, not a gerund; it's part of an adverbial clause modifying the base sentence.

My reasoning:
Spoiler :
Compare Wikipedia's article on participles, Modern English section, sub-section three, third bullet point.

To my mind, the underlying syntax can be made more obvious if the clauses are joined with a coordinating conjunction instead of a comma, forcing the second clause into past tense, instead of... whatever tense it is. I hate tenses. :/

Anyways: "A dozen hardback novels pressed down and their weight forced the chair into the carpet". 'Forced' is clearly a verb here, whereas if it had been acting as a gerund before (which is always a noun) this wouldn't work.

It's always possible I'm misunderstanding something, in which case I'd welcome correction. ...But I think I got it right.

So, as someone who's not a fan of modifiers in general, this is the sort of construction I'd try to avoid. It's essentially saying similar things twice - this can be made extra clear by fully separating the clauses. "A dozen hardback novels pressed down. Their weight forced the chair into the carpet." To my eye, the amount of new information conveyed doesn't justify the amount of words added. I'd only do this if:

1. I really wanted to emphasize how heavy the books were, to the point where I'm willing to hit the reader with a clue-by-four. I mean, the heaviness of those books would need to be absolutely central to the scene I'm trying to set.

2. The adverbial phrase added something really new or different to the base sentence... And even then, I'd have to feel like using a present participle was clearer than other constructions. For example, if the books are both heavy and magical, I might write something like: "A dozen tomes burdened the chair, smoking with fell sorcery."

Sometimes it's useful?

But I wouldn't go out of my way to use that construction. 

Re: Word Choice, Mood, and the Poetic Soul

#15
Not_A_Hat Wrote: ...Unless I'm parsing this wrong, (which is always possible) in this sentence 'forcing' is being used as a present participle, not a gerund; it's part of an adverbial clause modifying the base sentence.
Yes. Everything you have said up there is 100% correct. And well put!

It is just that no one wants to hear the words 'present participle,' much less figure out what it means or even how to spell it.

But yes - a gerund is a noun. A particlple is everything else -ING. And technically, I would further, the word FORCING is being used as a past continuous participle, as WAS is the word that's omitted in the sentence, having been replaced by the comma.

A DOZEN HARDBACK NOVELS PRESSED DOWN. THEIR WEIGHT WAS FORCING THE CHAIR INTO THE CARPET.

Another furtherance to offer here is this. People at times confuse passive WRITING with passive GRAMMAR. They are not the same. Passive writing is when nothing is happening. I liken it to being this -- if you can sit in a chair and not move a muscle and still do the act of the verb in the sentence, the sentence is passively written.

Technically, although books do not have muscles. they can PRESS without invoking action. The act of PRESSING is a static act. It is passive.

FORCING, on the other hand, is an active act. FORCING involves motion and intent. And again -- although books cannot invoke intent, in the sentence I wrote they are actively moving the chair, FORCING it into the CARPET. 

So thus:

The weight of a dozen hardback novels pressed the chair into the carpet is a passively written sentence. Pressing is a passive act. As a furtherence, WEIGHT is an ephemeral subject noun. It does not invoke an image of something.

A dozen hardback novels pressed down, forcing the chair into the carpet is an actively written sentence. Forcing is an active act. One can also argue that so is pressing DOWN, as the addition of the word DOWN implies motion.

That is all. 😸

Re: Word Choice, Mood, and the Poetic Soul

#17
ArDeeBurger Wrote: The weight of a dozen hardback novels pressed the chair into the carpet is a passively written sentence. Pressing is a passive act. As a furtherence, WEIGHT is an ephemeral subject noun. It does not invoke an image of something.

A dozen hardback novels pressed down, forcing the chair into the carpet is an actively written sentence. Forcing is an active act. One can also argue that so is pressing DOWN, as the addition of the word DOWN implies motion.

I'll be honest, I'm not following your demarcation here either. You mention 'actively written' and 'passively written', but then focus on verb choice instead of sentence structure.

Would you consider "I pressed the button down." less 'actively written' than "I forced the button down."?

Re: Word Choice, Mood, and the Poetic Soul

#18
Here. This one's pretty good. It talks about words to avoid, to make your writing more active.  
https://writewellsellwell.com/2017/12/active-vs-passive-writing/

This person also gets the idea.
http://writingright-martin.blogspot.com/2008/01/making-passive-writing-active.html

This guy also gets it when he says 'Active language comes not just from avoiding passive voice but further requires the use of strong action verbs.'
https://www.essayedge.com/blog/active-writing-verbs/

I will state here a caveat -- oftentimes while offering good advice, these sorts of people then provide a horrid example.
For instance, this last guy says to use strong action verbs, but then gives examples using verbs that are indeed strong, but are not what I'd call active.

Other times an example of passive writing will be given where, let's say, 'Mary looked at my purse.' Then an active example will be presented that is so purple it discolors your tongue.

Mary shot a piercing gaze in the direction of my purse.

No. Just don't. I'm begging. Please. Simply say 'Mary looked.'

And again. That truly is all. 😸

Re: Word Choice, Mood, and the Poetic Soul

#19

Not_A_Hat Wrote: Would you consider "I pressed the button down." less 'actively written' than "I forced the button down."?
I would consider both of these sentences to be actively written. They are grammatically in the active voice, and both offer the direction DOWN to convey a motion. 


And yes. That is the point I am making. Active writing is as much about the choice of words as it is about the structure of the sentence.  A common theme when discussing this concept of active writing is that nouns should be something which you can draw a picture of (BUTTON instead of WEIGHT) and verbs that do not imply motion (LOOK, THINK, SEE, TASTE, FEEL, WANT, NEED and la de da de da) are just as passive as the verbs we use to actually write a grammatically passive sentence.

'Forced' does imply however that you are indeed quite actively determined to make sure that darn button stays pressed down. 😸