How to Interpret the Word Choice of a Writer

Video Lesson on Author Purpose: Definition and Examples

Authors never pick the words in their works by accident. In this lesson, we'll explore the ways that authors use words and see how this impacts our understanding of their work.

Word Choice

Choose your words well. Select the appropriate vocabulary. Pick good things. This lesson could be written by three different writers, each of whom wants to say the same thing but in drastically different ways. For writers, few things are as important to conveying their message as word choice. You see, words actually contain multiple meanings. A word's denotation is its strict definition, but a word's connotation is its implied meaning. Writers select words for their connotations as much as their denotations and understanding this is the first step to appreciating any written work.

Choosing Your Words

To understand how authors use word choice to impact the effectiveness of their pieces, we first need to understand how to use it ourselves. Imagine that we are going to write a detective novel. Our first author begins, 'It was night.' Our second author begins with, 'It was the darkest of nights.' The third author begins, 'The night was young and alive.'

Each author is setting the stage for their story, but by using different words they create different tones. Author 1 presents a neutral description: 'It was night.' This gives us little information, but does let us make our own assumptions about what the night is like. Author 2 presents a more ominous setting, using that additional adjective to heighten the drama and suspense. Author 3 presents an entirely different scene, one of night life. From these single sentences, each author can set up an entirely different story.

Now, obviously, that was a somewhat extreme example. Each author wrote a very different sentence, but word choice can often come down to single words. What different connotations might the words good, benevolent and saintly have? How about happy, jubilant or content? Or scared, terrified and petrified? Each of these words carry specific feelings associated with them that go beyond the simple definition.

Now, it's your turn. We're going to put some sample sentences on the screen. Take a minute to fill in the blanks, thinking about how different words can change the sentence. Try using both synonyms and antonyms to do this, so if you use the word 'good', next try a synonym, like 'superb' and an antonym, like 'bad.' Remember, you can pause this video if you need more time to work on this.

Terry lived in a (blank) neighborhood, surround by (blank). When Terry thought of life here, everything seemed to get (blank). Maybe this town wasn't so (blank) after all.

Analyzing the Author's Words

Now that we can appreciate the ways that words change a passage, we can begin to analyze a writer's own word choices. Writers put a lot of thought and careful, conscious decisions into their work, so we should never assume that any word is used unintentionally. Every word is intentional and, therefore, tells us something about the writer's intent. Every word is a clue.

So, what should we look for? One great place to start is in looking at the weight of words. Now, I don't mean the amount of ink it took to print a word. What I mean is that some words stand out more than others. They carry more weight, or emphasis, for various reasons.

Look at this list of words. Which carries the most weight? The word 'atrocious' stands out, because it is the opposite of the others and because it is a bigger word. When authors use common words, then switch to a very descriptive word, that tells you that they want that word to be noticed. Words with lots of weight tend to indicate that something important is happening. Maybe an important plot point is being established. Maybe the tone is shifting or the setting is changing. Heavy words capture your attention, making them great places to begin an analysis.

But the less obvious words still matter. The subtle details of the narrative are established here. If a word stands out, it's only because the author built up a normal style that you got used to. The lighter words matter just as much as the heavier ones. By understanding this, we can begin to build up our analysis and understand exactly what the author wants to convey.

Lesson Summary

Authors use word choice to control the effectiveness of their works. Various words can be used to influence the detail, information and emotion within a passage. This means that an author selects words based on both their denotation, or strict definition, and their connotation, or implied meaning. Every word is intentional and can be used to set up important information, define characters or change the mood. Analyzing an author's word choice often begins with looking for heavier words, those that stand out, and then looking at the relation to lighter words that establish the base or normal tone. There's a lot of information packed into every single word, but a strong analysis can help you read a piece exactly as the author intended.

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