Diction For Writers – Why You Need To Know

Diction is a tool you have from the start. But its mastery might take a lifetime. Learn all about it in our blog post. 

Diction For Writers – Why You Need To Know

Diction is something you have from the very first words you learn and yet it takes a long time to master this tool as a writer. Rumour has it that it took Ernest Hemingway little time to write his first drafts but many hours to take out those words that weren’t contributing to the story. Why? Because every word you put on the page should be a strategic decision. And that’s what you call diction. Let’s look at that more closely.

What Exactly Is Diction?

The dictionary (sorry for the pun!) gives us two basic meanings for ‘diction.’ In spoken language, it’s the way we utter words and sounds. If we have good diction, we pronounce words correctly and with clarity.

In written language, there’s another level of meaning. Here, diction means the choice of words and how you use them.

For writers, diction should be a deliberate and strategic word choice. After all, you want to achieve clarity of meaning, and evoke a certain atmosphere (that’s where diction contributes to an author’s tone ).

A writer’s diction is influenced by the topic, the occasion, the purpose of the text and the audience you write for. Let’s go through these in more detail.

What Influences Diction?

Your topic influences your diction because it goes hand in hand with genre. Just imagine a fantasy writer who usually writes about dragons, fairies, and knights in shining armour. Suddenly the writer creates hardboiled crime stories. You can easily imagine this won’t work without a major change of diction, right? Every writer who dabbles in different genres knows this. J.K. Rowling had to do this, or her crime novels (published as Robert Galbraith) would read exactly like Harry Potter.

The occasion for which you write the text has an impact on the literary form. Poetic forms like an ode, an epitaph, or elegies cannot exist without a specific occasion. In poetry, you’ll find many poems stating explicitly the occasion they were written for (for example W.H. Auden, 1st September 1939).

Fiction writers sometimes believe they don’t have a specific occasion. But an occasion can also mean that you give voice to ideas that are currently being discussed. Just think about the genre of science fiction. It became popular among the writers of the 19th century in response to the criticism of the Industrial Revolution and its many inventions.

The occasion comes into play when writers choose a certain historical period as their setting. Crime writer Laurie R. King, for example, writes two series, one set in modern-day San Francisco, the other is a Sherlock Holmes pastiche. It’s one of her talents that she can adapt her diction masterfully to whatever series she’s writing.

The purpose of your text is next. There are three options: persuasion, information and/or entertainment. For example, informative texts are written in straightforward, mostly Latinate words to make them sound serious and scientific. Texts written for entertainment are more playful, so readers will want words used in ironic, playful, and maybe even unexpected ways.

Last, but not least, the audience comes into play. This is especially important for authors who cater to different audiences. Val McDermid for example, writes in different genres for different age groups. She needs to adapt her diction. She makes word choices for her bestselling thrillers for adults, and very different ones for her children’s book My Granny Is A Pirate.

Choosing the right diction for your audience (or readership) also needs to happen within your story or book – in dialogue. Remember that your characters also have a direct audience within your story. It matters if a husband is getting romantic with his wife, or if the same man is shown in a scene talking to his boss. Each social situation requires a different diction. You, as the writer, must choose the narrator’s, as well as your characters’ diction. This is called register (please read this blog post to find out how to use it). 

Why Bother?

Apart from creating good prose, diction can help to drive your story forward.  It’s a great device for showing because the mere choice of words already reveals so much. Here’s what’s in it for you.

  1. It brings characters to life. The way your MC speaks already says a lot about their age, gender, background, hometown, and mood. You don’t even have to describe it!
  2. It makes your setting richer. A story written in New York will sound different from a story set in Mumbai. Just by using certain words and avoiding others. Diction says a lot about the historical period, too. A strategic word is all it takes. Just by including a word like ‘parasol’ readers will know the story was written before 1910.
  3. It drives home the purpose of the text. An informative text needs formal vocabulary, and words with a clear-cut meaning, to sound scientific, clear, and precise. For entertainment, you might want to choose similes and metaphors and even include humour.
  4. It creates an author’s narrative voice and tone. The words that writers choose will create their narrative voice. It’s how they speak to their readers. Remember that you can also choose words for their sound quality. Meaning, register, and sound establish the ‘feel’ of the story, the tone. It’s why a horror novel sounds dark and ominous, but a beach read gives you a light and carefree.

Now you know why it’s important to choose your words strategically. But what happens if you don’t?

Changes Of Diction & Breaks In Register: Yay Or Nay?

Usually, writers are expected to stay true to their diction and only change it to give different voices to their characters. In novels, readers would not accept a change of diction mid-text. They’d drop out, saying the novel was badly written. It’s a no-go.

But this irritation is an effect writers can use. By making different sets of word choices clash, writers create a jarring effect. Readers are jolted out of their rut, forcing them to rethink what they’ve just written. In Poetry that’s a common device.

A famous example is the poem next to of course God America I by e.e. cummings. This poem is a hotchpotch of dictions. Phrases from the American national anthem and the American pledge of allegiance are mixed with formal and informal phrases. The jarring bits challenge the readers’ attention. Also, this often is where the meaning of the poem lies.

When you use the technique, remember that this is a play with fire. Readers of poetry tend to tolerate this more than readers of fiction.

The Last Word

No need to worry about diction – all writers make word choices instinctively. But maybe after reading this blog post, you have learned to use diction more strategically. It’s a great way to show, not tell.

If you are a poet, I’d like to encourage you to make use of those jarring words, where two levels of diction clash. That’s where a poet can create new meaning!

Susanne Bennett

By Susanne Bennett. Susanne is a German-American writer who is a journalist by trade and a writer by heart. After years of working at German public radio and an online news portal, she has decided to accept challenges by Deadlines for Writers. Currently she is writing her first novel with them. She is known for overweight purses and carrying a novel everywhere. Follow her on Facebook.

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Posted on: 18th April 2024
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