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Discover the power of word choice

Whether you’re writing prose or poetry, word choice is paramount. The words you choose determine where the emphasis is placed in your line or sentence and, thus, where you draw your reader’s attention.

In honor of National Poetry Month I’ll use a few of my poems as examples of the difference a word can make.

From my poem “Suppose someday I say hot springs:”

 

Original:

will I remember our hike up Sol Duc,
how we riffed fingers over silk moss,
how we stepped stone to stone
over the creek that crossed our path,
how we posed for a photo on the rickety
footbridge dwarfed by fir and red cedar?

Revision:

will I remember our hike up Sol Duc,
how we riffed fingers over silk moss,
how we stepped stone to stone
over the creek that crossed our path,
how we posed for a photo on the rickety
footbridge under fir and red cedar?

As you can see, I changed the bolded word “dwarfed” to a simpler word “under” in the revision. Why? Dwarfed is a more unusual and striking word but, because of this, it draws more attention to itself—attention that I don’t want in that particular place.

My first choice draws my reader’s attention to the footbridge while the revision places the emphasis more on the “we” of the stanza and the trees—which is where I want it.

From my poem “Lessons:”

Original:

In dreams, we walk hand in hand
through a field of white poppies, we sit in the sky
in a circle of shamans who allow me
to ask one question.

Revision:

In dreams, we walk hand in hand
through white poppies, we sit in the sky
in a circle of shamans who allow me
to ask one question.

In the revision, I deleted the words “a field of” before poppies so it would place less emphasis on the field of poppies and let the reader’s attention flow into the next image more easily.

From my poem “On Fjord Drive:”

Original:

He puts the mower in gear. His wife peers
through bamboo blinds, drops
them, as if I were contagious—
the blinds swing in agreement.

Revision:

He puts the mower in gear. His wife peers
through bamboo blinds, drops
them, as if I were contagious—
the blinds swing wildly in agreement.

In the revision, I added the adverb “wildly” because it emphasizes how the blinds swing, and therefore how the wife sees me—a bit wild or maybe even crazy. And the word adds an extra beat, which makes the rhythm of the line sound better. Bonus!

When editing your work, think about what idea, image, or information you want to emphasize in your lines, sentences, and paragraphs. Make them work for you.

Exercise: Choose a page of your work or a poem and highlight all the verbs. You want strong verbs but also verbs that are organic to your work. Do any of the highlighted verbs stand out or unnecessarily draw attention away from your poem or story? If so, try replacing them with a more appropriate word. For ideas on choosing strong verbs, see my post, Two steps to stronger verbs.

Next, highlight all the adjectives on your page or poem and do the same thing. Highlighting the words makes them stand out so you can see their effect more easily. Maybe everything is perfect the way it is. The exercise will help you see your word choices more deliberately.

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