Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Word Choice Matters

As writers we know that word choice is important. We strive to choose the correct word to create the best story possible. But did you know that word choice can have unexpected and even life changing positives outcomes?

This summer, singer Gladys Knight was in Washington, DC to celebrate National Train Day and when asked about her GRAMMY-winning song, “Midnight Train to Georgia” she said the song was initially titled, “Midnight Plane to Houston.” (As a side note, songwriter Jim Weatherly wrote it after talking by phone to actress, Farrah Fawcett, who told him she was taking the midnight plane to Houston to visit her folks.) However, Ms. Knight and the Pips wanted to change the title because they were from Georgia and more accustomed to taking trains. At the end of the TV interview, the anchor commented that she would have had “a whole other life” if they would have stuck with the original lyrics.

In 1987 President Ronald Reagan traveled to West Berlin to give a speech. The State Department and National Security Council waged a fierce campaign ahead of time for Reagan to omit a line about the Berlin Wall. The draft of the speech was changed to a more measured, “'One day, this ugly wall will disappear.” Yet in the limousine on the way to give his speech, Regan told his advisor that he wanted to stick with his original speech saying, “The boys at State are going to kill me but it's the right thing to do.” Of course, we know the events that unfolded not long after President Reagan said, “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall.”

What is little known about the famous “I Have a Dream” speech is that Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. departed from his prepared text and improvised. About two-thirds into his speech, singer Mahalia Jackson prompted him to declare his passionate dream for the nation. She shouted, “Tell them about the dream Martin!” And he continued with what many consider the Second Emancipation Proclamation. “I say to you today, my friends, so even though we face the difficulties of today and tomorrow, I still have a dream...”

There are many ways to arrive at remarkable word choice. Three of these ways are: being authentic to lifestyle and experience; holding strong beliefs and following through with them; and being prodded by a friend. How do you get to outstanding word choice?


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  2. In my short story "Beecher's Bibles" it took about the same length of time to get the first sentence right as it took to write the rest of the story. I cannot tell you how many times I re-wrote those few words. The truth is that I never did get the sentence right; I just tried and eliminated every way to get it wrong until finally I ran out of the wrong words and the sentence I used was the only one left.

  3. I admire your fortitude, Warren. Sometimes process of elimination is the only way.

  4. Elimination and rearranging is my method. Like Warren, I've inserted and discarded, but I also look at sentences to find out how to make them shorter and more active. Sometimes rearranging is the way to go. Very few times though have I done all that and think I've nailed it. I understand very well how revision can be never ending.

  5. After revising words for what seems forever, I have to re-picture the scene and step back into the head of the character or characters in that scene.

  6. I agree E.B. Revision is never ending! Even when I feel satisfied with my word choice one day, I end up rearranging phrases and changing words the next day.

    That's another great way to get to outstanding word choice, Pauline. I know there is scriptwriting software that will speak written dialogue in a variety of voices. I haven't tried it but I think it would help to hear it out loud to make sure it's the correct word choice for that character.