Choosing the Right Words

Amy Tan

Lesson time 17:00 min

Amy dives into her love of words and explains the importance of choosing each one carefully.

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Topics include: Be Deliberate With Word Choice • Words to Avoid • Pitfalls of Dialogue and Exposition • Inner vs. Outer Dialogue • Be Wary of Perfectionism • Exercise: Create Dynamic Metaphors


[PIANO MUSIC] - I've done probably thousands of interviews for media. And the question that I probably love the most is when an interviewer in Germany said to me, "what is the question no one asked that you wish they would ask?" And I immediately said, "language." And I wanted to say, I have a love of words, and that is one of the reasons I became a writer. I love words. And I'm trying to always find the ways that express something with a sense of exactitude, which is a self-defeating proposition. You can never have exactitude. And that is part of the art. I could endlessly go through what I'm writing and work on that. Some people find their painful. I think it is enormously satisfying. [PIANO MUSIC] I've always loved words. What I read when I was a child, just for fun, was the thesaurus, just seeing all of these different words can stand for this, and yet none of them really meant what I wanted to say. But so many words at my disposal, and some of them conveyed images. In a story, you can capture a single moment with a set of circumstances, and it works for that moment. It's ephemeral, and then it's gone. But you have come to an understanding through this careful construction of words. Every word relates to the next word. And you should think of that in terms of companions in what you're trying to express, especially the textures of the words. Every word has a relationship in terms of its rhythm to the next one. Every sentence has rhythm, and the sentence that it adjoins, and the paragraph, and the new paragraph. Think about the sound of the words, for example. It's really interesting to me that certain words in English that have to do with a texture of light or a surface begin with the letters GL-- for example, glisten, glimmer, glow. Think about those. It's possible that other people have similar feelings about these words because so many of them contain this sound. Or when you're talking about something very sharp or violent, visceral, there's a lot of sounds that are sibilant, these sibilant sounds. Or when you're talking about something that is shocking, it is an accident, it is-- what you have are these ends of words that are stops. You want the words to communicate the tone of what the story is about. So it's really a lot of fun. You can go back and take these words and find words that do more work for you. They are going to be even better. Look at the lazy, the soft words, that they're there. They're there in a proper place, but they're not doing what a word could possibly do. Not every word has to be special and onomatopoeic, but you should look for those opportunities. [MUSIC PLAYING] The other thing to avoid is common expressions, cliches, things like he looked white as a ghost. These things, they're typical, and you can use them. But if you use too many of them, your language is not fresh. Is there a way that you can say that? Well, what is a ghost? What you're talkin...

About the Instructor

Amy Tan was 33 before she first explored her voice as a fiction author. A few years later, her debut novel, The Joy Luck Club, spent 40 weeks on The New York Times bestseller list. Now she’s showing you her approach to the challenges and joy of self-discovery through writing. Learn how to craft compelling beginnings and endings, find your voice, and embrace your emotional memory to bring powerful narratives to life.

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Amy Tan

The celebrated author shares her approach to voice, story, and the craft of bringing narratives to life from beginning to end.

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