Updated: Oct 1, 2022
“I was reading the dictionary. I thought it was a poem about everything.” –Steven Wright
Do you want the words you write to mean something? Or better question, do you have intention behind what you are writing? These are important questions any poet should ask themselves before diving into their next writing assignment.
What is Word Choice?
If you were to take out a dictionary and look up the definition for word you would discover this: a speech sound or series of speech sounds that symbolizes and communicates a meaning usually without being divisible into smaller units capable of independent use (Merriam-Webster). Then if you apply the concept of “words have meaning” you would soon understand why the selection of words plays a pivotal role in the expressive art of poetry.
Effective word choice examples are the ones that use clichés sparingly, focus on denotations and connotations, deliver straightforward meaning, avoid jargon, and are not accompanied by turning to the thesaurus with the sole purpose of sounding more intelligent in mind.
Why is Word Choice Important In Writing?
Suppose you’re writing a poem about peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, and you decide to use the word robust to describe the flavor of the strawberry jam. Does “robust” sound logical in this instance? Not really. The reason for this is because “robust” has nothing to do with sandwiches. In fact, if we were to use the word “robust” one might think of this strawberry jam as being smelly or pungent. Would you eat a peanut butter and jelly sandwich if it smelled? Probably not. Which is the exact imagery that this connotation would convey to the reader.
While evaluating word choice, it is important to address the concerns that restrict the author from disseminating correct information to the readers. One of the most common errors a poet can make is the inadvertent misuse of words (i.e. The poet excepted the Poe Award for poetic brilliance). Oops, this word isn’t acceptable.
Another example is words with unwanted connotations or meanings. Such as “her flower petals were delicate and comprised of many blue hues.” The keyword here is “delicate” as it would depict the flower petals being frail or weak. However, when we change out “delicate” with the word “translucent,” we get an entirely different meaning altogether. A meaning that flows better as a whole.
Perhaps you’ve heard of the KISS method. If not, let me enlighten you. Keep it simple stupid. Just because a person sees poetry as an elegant art form, that doesn’t mean your words need to be outrageously complicated. Some of the greatest poems out there are simple in terms of word choice. Take “No Man Is An Island” by John Donne for example. Despite the linguistic time difference, this poem is succinct in getting its message across that humanity needs to consider its relationship with everything else.
No man is an island,
Entire of itself,
Every man is a piece of the continent,
A part of the main.
If a clod be washed away by the sea,
Europe is the less.
As well as if a promontory were.
As well as if a manor of thy friend’s
Or of thine own were:
Any man’s death diminishes me,
Because I am involved in mankind,
And therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls;
It tolls for thee.
What Are Some Best Practices To Use?
I wanted to make this part of the article more practical. So… I welcome you to join in on applying the following techniques to get a better grasp on word choice.
The art of minimalism is rather simple really, you take a piece of text and reduce it down to its most basic elements. The results will not be a complete poem, but this is certainly a great tool for understanding the meaning of your poem in an intimate way.
For this exercise, we will be looking at a sample of Yusef Komunyakaa’s “Facing It.”
My black face fades,
hiding inside the black granite.
I said I wouldn't
dammit: No tears.
I'm stone. I'm flesh.
My clouded reflection eyes me
like a bird of prey, the profile of night
slanted against morning. I turn
this way—the stone lets me go.
Start by looking at each line and identifying what the keyword is for that particular line. Then jot the word you selected down. Repeat this for every single line. You should have a compiled list of words. Now, look carefully at each of the words in this list and select the three you feel have the most significance to your interpretation of the poem. Great job! You’ve just discovered the meaning of this poem. Once you’ve identified the meaning of a poem you can then better understand what words work best and which ones could be swapped out or removed.
This technique is a very unique way of doing the process of elimination. Say you don’t know how to describe something. Firstly, if you haven’t already, write down the line/s you are trying to depict. Select one or two nouns within that text and begin the process of adding adjectives that would describe that noun.
If it helps, you can utilize this tool here for researching possible adjectives if you are struggling.
Compile a list of 5-10 adjectives describing that one noun. Then, rewrite the line/s using these adjunct adjectives on a separate page. Afterward, read aloud every single variant making sure to jot down, or checkmark, which ones sound best to you. These should be the ones that roll right off the tongue. Repeat this till you have only three or fewer options to choose from. The only thing you have to do now is select which option fits best into your poem’s narrative.
Feel free to use this poem “Thanksgiving Magic” by Rowena Bastin Bennett to practice this technique, or use one of your own poems.
Thanksgiving Day I like to see
Our cook perform her witchery.
She turns a pumpkin into pie
As easily as you or I
Can wave a hand or wink an eye.
She takes leftover bread and muffin
And changes them to turkey stuffin’.
She changes cranberries to sauce
And meats to stews and stews to broths;
And when she mixes gingerbread
It turns into a man instead
With frosting collar ’round his throat
And raisin buttons down his coat.
Oh, some like magic made by wands,
And some read magic out of books,
And some like fairy spells and charms
But I like magic made by cooks!
This technique combines some elements of the previous two, but the difference is that you are trying to purposely oppose your intentions. This backward way of thinking might sound off-putting, but it's a great way to spark some imagination and boost creativity. So, the premise of Doppelganger Derivatives is selecting what you don’t want to help select what you do want. If that makes any sense.
For this exercise, we will be utilizing a sample of Letitia Elizabeth Landon’s poem “Lines of Life.”
I hear them speak of love, the deep.
The true, and mock the name;
Mock at all high and early truth,
And I too do the same.
I hear them tell some touching tale,
I swallow down the tear;
I hear them name some generous deed,
And I have learnt to sneer.
I hear the spiritual, the kind,
The pure, but named in mirth;
Till all of good, ay, even hope,
Seems exiled from our earth.
Start by reading the entirety of the sample above until you get a grasp on an interpretation of it. Now, select six lines that you want to create doppelgangers for and jot them down separately. Rewrite each of these lines so that they state the opposite of what they originally proposed. Then reinsert those rewritten lines back into the poem exactly where you extracted them from. Read the poem in its entirety again, keeping a mental note of how the poem’s meaning has changed. Ask yourself the question: how could this have been written differently? You should begin to receive ideas during this brainstorm. That means the technique has worked. Congratulations!
Now that you’ve experimented a bit using the techniques above, do you think word choice is still important? What are some of the ideas that you came up with? Did you discover something new, or a technique that is different from those above? Leave your thoughts and opinions in the comments below. I’d be more than happy to see what you’ve all come up with.