The words we choose to use when we speak and write can bring people joy or sorrow, can make them angry or calm them down, can lead to understanding or conflict. They can excite, amuse, enthrall, and/or inform.
A single written word can color the reader’s perception of a subject. In a book of fiction, it can manipulate the reader’s feelings about a place, a character, or a situation. It can signal to the reader whether they’re supposed to trust and like or distrust and dislike a particular character.
Think about this for a moment. Think about school text books. Imagine how the words used to describe historical figures can make the difference between them seeming like heroes or scoundrels.
I grew up reading and hearing word pictures of George Washington and other foundational figures of America that made them superhuman heroes in my mind. Washington, so the story goes, could not tell a lie. He and his fellow Founders were somehow bigger and better than ordinary human beings, with loftier thoughts more eloquently expressed. (Or maybe they were Vulcan—not sure.)
I have to admit, reading the literate and elegant prose of men like Alexander Hamilton and James Madison does make me long for days of yore, at least when it comes to the way we use language. This made it all the more jarring when, for example, I discovered through primary sources (specifically, letters he’d written to a colleague) that George Washington’s investment in the Revolution was in part driven by the profits he expected to derive from Indian land he had illegally speculated on. This was land the British treaties with native peoples denied him. Convince the Brits to go home and poof! No more onerous treaties.
This seeming paradox created what psychologists call cognitive dissonance. It’s what happens when your assumptions about someone or something, based upon what you’ve been told about them, clash violently with more nuanced reality. This forces some folks to feel as if they must make a choice: Do I believe in the heroic George Washington or the venal one?
The reality is that George Washington and his cohorts—as well-spoken as they were, were not superhuman. They were not fictional heroes. They were human beings thrust into positions of opportunity and power with vast human and real resources at their disposal. They assumed leadership roles in a world-changing movement. Like most human beings thrust into maelstroms of opportunity and position, these men had to navigate some very powerful forces from within and without. Like the rest of us, they made mistakes and poor choices, sometimes based on questionable motives.
I came to the conclusion that I could respect and admire George Washington for not wanting to be declared King George, but I could also be disappointed by his lack of scruples when it came to his treatment of First Nations people and the treaties intended to protect them from avarice. I came away from the experience with a mixed conception of who George Washington was, but somewhat closer to reality.
That was my primary takeaway from more recent situations; keeping my assumptions and expectations in alignment with reality was important if I didn’t want to experience jarring dissonance and disillusionment.
This, and other factors, have influenced the way I write and the way I consume the writing of others. I take everything with a bit of salt and try to have an ear tuned for possible biases or even prejudices. As a reader, I want to extract truths from what I read; as a writer, I want to do my best to impart them.
In reading non-fiction—news reports, editorials, transcripts, speeches, etc.—it can be hard to winnow through the biases that word choices create. Over the years, I’ve developed a means of doing this; I’ve learned to edit input. That is, I keep my inner ear open for adjectives, adverbs and colorful verbs that seek to qualify the subject at hand and I redact them as I read and digest what I’ve read.
I try to read between the words intended to persuade. Usually, when I strip away all the bells and whistles, I’m left with a core message. It may take more investigation to determine if the naked message is true in its essence, but that’s a different process.
I’ve read some pieces that, when I’d redacted all of the colorful distractors, there was literally no there there. I’ve read other works that my redactions rendered neutral and found myself puzzled as to what all the brouhaha was about.
What sort of words am I talking about?
Consider this description of an event: When the Senator entered the room, he was set upon by a pack of reporters, snarling impertinent questions.
The persuasion words here are set upon, pack, snarling, impertinent. They rely on emotional associations to evoke images of a pack of slavering wolves. They encourage the reader to view the reporters as predators and the object of their interest as an overwhelmed victim of an attack. This may evoke a heightened sense of wariness or even dread on the part of the reader. Moreover, the sentence characterizes the journalists’ questions as impertinent, literally prejudicing the reader against the questions before they’re even asked. If the questions are viewed as an assault, the subject’s answers take the form of a heroic battle.
These vivid, emotionally evocative words frame a simple action which, stripped to its bikini bottoms, becomes: When the Senator entered the room, he was approached by reporters asking questions.
Part of the problem here is that this is an inherently boring action and it’s understandable that the writer might want to tart it up a bit to make it more exciting. But in the realm of non-fictional explanatory writing, this sentence is potentially destructive to the alleged purpose of such writing: communication of facts and ideas.
As a writer of non-fiction (as opposed to a propagandist), I want to avoid words that will bias the reader; I want to convey information and let the reader decide how they will receive the Senator’s answers to the reporters’ questions.
Writers of opinion pieces (and alas, even reportage) prejudice readers all the time, often starting with the headline of their articles. They speak of a reply as a jab, or a disagreement as a slam. It’s as if they’d really rather be writing sports commentary—and perhaps they should. Often this verbal manipulation is merely click bait and goes no further than the headline.
Roll your eyes if you’ve ever been snagged by a juicy headline (Politico Peter Destroys Partisan Paul on Importance of Groundhog Day!) only to find that the article describes a mild, even friendly disagreement between colleagues, or even one participant merely asking a simple question (”How does a groundhog’s shadow effect the weather, anyway?”).
I often write pieces that make an argument for a particular idea or point of view. Even then, I try to do it honestly. I state my personal sense of a situation or idea in as straight forward a manner as possible, then try to step the reader through my logic. I avoid emotionally manipulative words (adjectives, adverbs and verbs) to modify the facts I’m presenting.
BUT when I write fiction, I have a different agenda. When I write fiction, I totally want to prejudice the reader. I want to manipulate their emotions and lead their thoughts down specific paths for the sake of my story.
In the realm of fiction, I aim to influence in any way I can and I am ever mindful of what’s in a word.