How to Write the Perfect Novel, Pt. 1: Diction

Let’s be honest: every writer’s dream is to someday write that universal best-selling, multi-award winning novel-for-the-ages.

But how the heck are you supposed to get there? Between everyday obligations and overwhelming uncertainty, this can seem like an impossible task.

Fear not! There are tried-and-true ways to create an outstanding novel, and I would love to share them with you. In this blog post and several to follow, I am going to outline the tools great writers use to produce exemplary books.

The first I’d like to discuss, because it’s part of first-draft writing, is diction.

Diction

Most of you are probably familiar with this term, but if not, diction is your “style of speaking or writing as dependent upon choice of words” (dictionary.com). So, basically, the words you choose in your writing. And this is of no little importance. As my junior year English teacher drilled into my memory, diction will make or break your story. It is the difference between an amateur and a real writer.

Let’s use a concrete example of the difference diction makes:

Sentence A:

In all honesty, it was a really good story.

Sentence B:

Truth is, the book was phenomenal.

Sentence C:

Honestly, the story was life-changing.

See? Three ways to say the same thing. But do you hear each one in a different voice? What tone does each one carry? What emotions do each one evoke?

1.) Another thing my English teacher taught me is to be concise. Instead of using a whole bunch of words, find the one or two words that replace them all.

dead poets society

Example:

The cloudy, windy, rainy day caused me to zip my jacket all the way up to keep warm. 

Versus:

 I zipped up my jacket, steeling myself against the blustery weather. 

Instead of using three basic adjectives (cloudy, windy, rainy), you can replace them with one word: blustery. And instead of using “all the way up to keep warm”, replace that needlessly long phrase with a strong verb: steeling.

the road to hell is paved with adverbs

2.) Get rid of the adverbs. Adverbs are mediocre additions to weak verbs. Once in a while they are good, but I find they often are overused (even in my own writing). Try using a single strong, descriptive verb instead of a weak verb paired with an adverb.

Example:

I quickly ran to my next class.

Instead:

I sprinted to my next class. 

Or:

I bolted to my next class.

It goes back to being concise. Don’t use two words if you can say the same thing with just one.

This brings me to my next point:

3.) Show, don’t tell. This is an oft-used writer’s term that I barely understood, until I realized it, too, involves diction.

don't tell me the moon is shining

Rather than outright explaining something, choose a word or description that replaces your explanation.

Example:

It was hot outside.

Instead, try:

Feeling the sun on his back, he took off his jacket. His throat clenched with thirst. He shielded his eyes from the glare, wiped sweat from his forehead. 

Instead of stating the obvious, imply it through your words. Use action and sensory details instead of statement. There’s no need to come outright and say “It was hot” when it can be made clear through your character’s actions and five senses.

4.) Diction is how we establish voice – our author voice, and the voice of each character. Voice sets us and our characters apart from everyone else, so we must be intentional with what diction we use. If you want your voice to sound casual, you might try a conversational tone – things like contractions or slang would be appropriate in this case. On the other hand, if you wanted to take a more classic approach to your writing, you might tend towards more formal vocabulary. The same applies to character narration and conversation. For instance, the dialogue you would write for a man in the military is completely different than the vocabulary you would use for a seven-year-old girl.

Here’s the difference:

Much to my chagrin, Mother had entirely forgotten about the pastries she promised to bake us.

As opposed to:

“You gonna go to the party? I heard it’s gonna be lit.”

One sounds more like something a twentieth century British author would write, and the other sounds like something my teenage sister would say. Both are acceptable, because they are each appropriate for a specific circumstance, audience, or character.

Now that we’ve covered the majority of instances in which to use diction, here’s what I recommend:

Pick a page of your writing. Go back through it and see what long phrases or unnecessary or basic words you can take out, then try to figure out what to replace them with. Diction is almost like solving a puzzle: sometimes you have to take out a bunch of little pieces and replace them with one piece that perfectly fills their hole. Trust me: you can find that one perfect word which surmises everything you’re trying to convey. It’s just a matter of searching hard enough.

Need resources?

Here’s a list of 100 words to replace “bad”…and several other lists of 100 replacement words, such as “good” or “said”, as well!

Here’s a chart containing a variety of words for tastes and scents.

Here are words to describe what one can feel or touch.

Here’s a list of the 100 most beautiful English words.

If you’re writing a fight scene, here is a list of strong fighting words.

And if that’s not enough, I have plenty more resources saved on my Pinterest board.

I hope this helps! I’d love to hear some feedback from you guys. If you could, please post a comment below containing both an original sentence you wrote and the revised version using good diction.

Best of luck!