Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Word Choice

Here's a quite-difficult writing exercise I recently gave to my students:

Using one-syllable words ONLY, write a short scene from a story (or you could even write a long-ish poem or mini-essay).

Students surprise me every time with this assignment. Because of the difficulty level, I'm usually expecting them to come up with a somewhat simplistic, nursery-rhyme-ish, sing-songy-sounding story/poem. But they don't. Their work is poignant, rich, deep, philosophical, and oftentimes, funny!

It's one of my favorite in-class exercises - not only because it's challenging, but also because of what it teaches the students. Every time, without fail, the students tell me something along these lines: "This assignment made me look at every single word SO closely. I really had to slow down and think about my word choice."

What a great lesson for all writers - the importance of word choice. How about these: hurt vs. ached; exciting vs. scintillating; loud vs. sonorous. We writers have total control over what ends up on the page - word choice is our choice. And it's not that the words have to be formal-sounding or overly-descriptive or intellectual-sounding. But one word can create one image in the reader's mind, while another word can create an entirely different image. It's that important.

For me, keen attention to word choice happens in the editing process. The rough draft is for pouring my thoughts/ideas on paper nearly the moment they spill out. But in the editing process, I slow down, almost painfully-so, and pay careful attention to sentences, to individual words. And yes, I break out my thesaurus from time-to-time. No harm in that! It's one of a writer's many tools.

So, today, why not give this one-syllable exercise a try? (I'd love to see a few of them posted in the comments! How fun! I'll start...*takes a breath and dives in* lol).


  1. Okay, here goes (I hadn't planned to be spiritual with it, but this is just what came out):

    She's not proud of it, but she wears her masks each day. One for work (an "I'm fine" smile), one for school (an "I'm glad to be here" grin), one for her friends (a "How's it going?" shrug), and one for her Lord.

    She knows she can't hide from God, but she still tries. She wants to please Him, but thinks her TRUE self won't, can't. Hence, the mask.

    Sure, He sees straight through it, loves her in spite of who she is. He sees her as whole, as pure, as His child - but she just can't seem to take the mask off. It's a part of her now. In fact, she's worn it for so long that it's like a foot or hand or ear. To rip it off would be too hard, too much. So, there it stays. Day in, day out. She's learned to let it speak for her, think for her. But what's the cost? Has she lost who she is, who she was meant to be?

  2. Great exercise. I totally can't do it.
    Most of our one-syllable words are Germanic in origin, and I think I'm too wed to that multi-syllabic Latinate vocabulary they pound into you in grad school. I will, however, keep trying!
    I can tell you're a good writing teacher...

  3. Aww, thanks, Gayle - yep, this exercise is soooo difficult. This was actually the first time I'd tried it, myself. lol

  4. Liked reading the above....wish I could contribute, but I'm not in the 'one-syllable' mindset tonight.....great exercise though!