Thursday, August 20, 2015

Renée M. LaTulippe – Diction Is King: A Lyrical Language Revision Tip

Writer's Day by tihmoller and Andre F. Muller on DeviantArt

Revising your manuscript can seem like a ravenous dragon set loose in your fairy tale village. 
Just ask Janie Lazo, Sandy Lowe, Kathleen Mazurowski, or Joy Acey, whose couplets were featured this week for Penny Parker Klostermann's DMC challenge.

From the belly of the dragon, Renée LaTulippe shares a revision tip that may save your manuscript's life.

This is Renée's fourth TLD contributor post, shedding light on her 5-week online course, The Lyrical Language Lab: Punching Up Prose with Poetry.  Her next available class begins on October 26th.

Thanks as always, Renée, for sharing your insights on Today's Little Ditty!

Diction Is King: A Lyrical Language Revision Tip
by Renée M. LaTulippe

In one of my previous posts, Mood, Effect, and Emotion: Sentence Transformation, we looked at the properties of sound and how sound can transform your text.
Today, in the last of the “lyrical language basics” posts, we’re going to take that a step further and talk about diction, aka word choice, and how you can punch up your text during revision. Does your text feel listless? Is it suffering from a general malaise? Then it probably needs a shot of poetry—in the form of specific diction—to get it on its feet again.

If you’ve been a writer for five minutes, you have no doubt heard that your choice of verbs can make or break your text. In a nutshell:

You can find a sea of information on verbs on the Internet, so I won't go into them in more detail—because verbs aren’t the only words that need a good shakedown during revision.

The right choice of adjectives and nouns can help you show your story and reveal your characters as well as any verb. The trick is to be specific and choose loaded words—that is, words that are loaded with image, tone, and emotion.

I like to do a little exercise with my students called “unwriting,” which is when I take a small section of a text and replace all the verbs, nouns, and adjectives with run-of-the-mill choices. This exercise helps illuminate the importance of diction and how the right words can do so much of our storytelling work for us.

Let’s look at this sample from a prose picture book, which I have unwritten and then put back together. Note how the choice of specific nouns and adjectives transforms the writing.

So what’s going on here? Let’s analyze it:

  • There are no adverbs in this passage. In the entire book I found only about eight, but most are unobtrusive or interesting, like generally, particularly, and brilliantly.

  • The name Wilfred creates a more specific image of the main character, whereas the name Tom is neutral. Based on the name and the other language in this short passage, how do you imagine Wilfred?

  • The names Marcel and Rodrigo are specific and funny, especially for a moose. Mark and Robert are fine names for everyday life, but if you’re going to get a moose, you might as well give him a name with pizzazz. The names also fit the overall tone of the book and the personality of the main character. Wilfred would not settle for a moose named Mark.

  • Look at the adjectivesdumbstruck, mistaken, only proper. What does this type of language reveal about the main character? How do these choices reinforce the image you formed based solely on his name? How much more weight does dumbstruck carry vs. surprised? How are wrong and mistaken different in tone?

  • The use of old lady instead of woman reveals how Wilfred feels about this intruder, this pretender to the affections of his moose. She’s not just a lady, she’s an old lady who was mistaken!

  • Even in this short snippet you can see that Jeffers opted for more elevated language than one usually finds in a picture book. Through his diction, the author creates a main character who doesn’t get upset, but rather takes umbrage at perceived wrongs. This is a sophisticated MC with discerning tastes and a well-defined personality.

  • Other words and phrases that contribute to this tone include generally ignored, particularly poor, maintaining a certain proximity, terrible discovery, discussed their plans, ruled out…options, perilous situations, reached a compromise, and my favorite line in the book, Embarrassed and enraged, Wilfred rushed off for home. 

This is Wilfred. He’s the one in the bowtie and suspenders. Is he anything like you imagined him?

from THIS MOOSE BELONGS TO ME by Oliver Jeffers (click to enlarge)

Give it a try!

Go through your manuscript and highlight, in two different colors, all your nouns and adjectives, and then analyze them. Are they the best, most specific choices you can make for your story and your characters? 

In the next lyrical language post, we’ll look at the revision process via some before-and-after examples. Until then, happy writing!

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Copyright © 2015 Renée M. LaTulippe. This article is partially excerpted from lessons in the online course The Lyrical Language Lab: Punching Up Prose with Poetry. All rights reserved.

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Would you like some more sneak peeks into The Lyrical Language Lab lessons? Check out Renée’s other posts on Today’s Little Ditty:

Sound Bites: Making Writing Musical
Mood, Effect, and Emotion: Sentence Transformation    
What Dodo Birds Can Teach Is About Meter

An editor and writer, Renée LaTulippe has co-authored nine early readers and a collection of poetry titled Lizard Lou: a collection of rhymes old and new (Moonbeam Children’s Book Award) and has poems in several editions of The Poetry Friday Anthology. She developed and teaches the online course The Lyrical Language Lab: Punching Up Prose with Poetry and blogs on children’s poetry at

Dragon's not the only one who knows where to find scrumptious poetry. Join Catherine at Reading to the Core for this week's Poetry Friday roundup.


  1. Renee is always full of brilliant helpful advice!

  2. "Unwriting" looks like an interesting lesson that can be used in a classroom. Teacher unwrites a passage, students rewrite, then student writing is compared to original. I like it!

    1. Diane -- yes, that's exactly what students do in my course. I present them with two "unwritten" passages and have them rewrite it. It's amazing what they come up with, and really enlightening to see how they compare to the originals. I also have them do the reverse -- to unwrite a passage themselves.

  3. Thanks for the tips, Renee! As usual you present them in a clear and concise way that can be applied to any WIP to punch it up!

  4. Wonderful and informative post. Especially liked the " unwriting" exercise.

  5. Oh, how I love analyzing language! I'm geeking out! Thanks, Renèe!

  6. Thank you for the wonderful advice, Renee and Michelle!

  7. Renee's advice helps, and I do go through to highlight those pesky words, looking for 'new'. Then the added problem is which one of the new ones do I like? Thanks for reminding about the 'un-writing'.

  8. Thanks for all the helpful tips, Renee and Michelle. I love when I can see how changing just one word can make a world of difference. :)

  9. I have used Renee's Mood, Effect, and Emotion with my students. You can BET I'll be doing some unwriting with them, too!

    1. Awesome! How did they do with the Mood, Effect, Emotion?

  10. Great advice in this post. Thanks, Renee and Michelle.

  11. This is such valuable information - immensely helpful for writers, I'm sure. Renee is a wonderful teacher. Thank you, dear Michelle for featuring Renee's words of wisdom.

  12. Again, so much goodness from Michelle and Renee! I think I will be returning often to this post as my work sometimes suffers from "general malaise" at times.Thank you both. =)