Jo Robertson on Revision with Diction and Syntax


Jo Robertson on Revision with Diction and Syntax

It’s the last day of the RU hiatus. Carrie, Becke, and I are clearing out the complimentary toiletries in our hotel rooms at the Connaught, while Adrienne, Kelsey, and Tracey are eyeing the last petit four at the Savoy. (Not really, but can we just suspend disbelief for one more day?)  

Today’s post from the RU archives, by author Jo Robertsonis one you’ll want to bookmark.  

One of the greatest tools in the author’s arsenal of revision and rewrites is working with language. Once you’ve got your plot and pacing well defined, what can you do to elevate your book above the common fray? What sets your story apart from the myriads available to readers?

You’ve written the draft, tightened the plot, and strengthened the pacing. What’s next? We talk a lot about an author’s voice, but often writers fail to understand the concept. Voice is the unique tone of your writing; if your voice is strong, it’s as distinguishable from another writer as fingerprints. It’s your writing DNA and arises from two strong writing elements many authors pay little attention to: diction and syntax.

Diction is word choice and includes tone, which is the attitude of the writer toward her subject, characters, or writing. Diction is the foundation of voice. Effective writers use words that are clear, concrete, and precise. Largely this can be achieved by skillful understanding of a word’s denotation (the literal, dictionary definition of the word) as distinguished from its connotation (the implied or suggested meaning of a word, the emotional tag).

Consider the words “gaunt” and “slim.” Both have the same denotations – both mean “extremely thin.”

Example: Your character hasn’t seen her friend since last Christmas and she’s lost a lot of weight. When Sara first sees Jane, she exclaims, “Oh, my gosh, you’ve lost weight! You look so ______.” Consider the words you could use and how they convey the precise meaning you want.

skinny, thin, slender, gaunt, slim, trim, tiny, petite, svelte

Connotatively, “gaunt” evokes memory of a concentration camp survivor or a cadaver. “Skinny” suggests too thin, perhaps even anorexic.

If you want your character to be a bit snarky, you will show her character by using “skinny,” which has a negative connotation (not as negative as “gaunt,” but more subtle). If you want to convey sincere congratulations for how good Jane looks, you might use “slender” or “slim.”

Diction, then, is word choice, a powerful writing tool.

As a writer, you have absolute control over diction and an entire world of words to use. However, I advise my students never to use a thesaurus. If you don’t already know and understand a word’s usage and meaning, you’re likely to misuse it in context. This kind of misuse is the sign of an immature or beginning writer.

If you need a word bank, start one of your own. When you read or hear interesting or evocative words, or even words that are onomatopoetic (sound suggests meaning), type them into your word bank and note how they’re used in in context. Pay attention to their connotations as well as their denotation. Study their rhythm and their syllables. You might also consider investing in a good synonym dictionary. The difference between this kind of dictionary and a thesaurus is that the synonym dictionary will jog your memory for words you (hopefully) already have in your mental lexicon.

hitmansheart600x900Another example: “Plump” and “obese” and “fat” are denotatively the same – they mean “overweight” – but “plump” has a more positive connotation. Calling someone “pleasingly plump” has an affectionate feeling and suggests a well-rounded, happy, or over-endowed person. However, “obese” is a clinical term that suggests being grossly overweight, especially in a medical sense, and is connotatively negative. Using “fat” is most negative of all because it suggests a judgment without medical concern.

Consider what the writer does connotatively with the words in the following sentence:

The finalist surveyed the audience, clutching the RITA statue and congratulating herself for snatching the highest honor in the profession’s contest.

All four underlined words suggest that the finalist stole the honor from the other contestants, rather than achieved it fairly.

Remember that diction conveys tone, and the tone here is gloating; the finalist surveys her fellow contenders as one looking down upon the audience like a monarch over her subjects.

Choose words that fit the tone of the passage or character. Don’t overreach for these words, but do consider how tone is conveyed through your word choice. Your writer’s voice is closely connected to your diction.

The second tool we rarely talk about is syntax. Syntax is the arrangement of words, phrases, or clauses in a sentence or passage. It involves a number of devices like sentence structure and phrasing.

Attention to syntax is more useful in your narration than your dialogue, but is still an important tool is controlling your story.

A. Sentence structure includes different kinds and types of sentences, rhetorical question, specific punctuation, and purposeful patterns of phrases and sentences within a passage.

Let’s look at two versions of this periodic sentence:

The man died because the ambulance arrived late.

Because the ambulance arrived late, the man died.

The second sentence is arranged so that tension is built as the reader waits to find out what happened; the first one tells you up front. Which is better for your writing purpose? Do you want the information of the man dying delayed to increase tension, or do you want the death stated up front and the cause explained afterward?

An example from Jane Austen:

“The garden sloping to the road, the houses standing in it, the green pales and the laurel hedge, everything declared they were arriving.”

The periodic sentence delays the important message (they were arriving); plus Austen has this lovely layering of phrases as she builds toward the final clause.

B. Phrasing refers to the placement and variation of phrases in sentences, parallel structure, and purposeful repetition.

Caveat! The point of understanding and using these syntactical devices is to underscore or enhance your content. Not for showing off! Whatever syntactical devices you use should
(a) mirror the content and
(b) not detract from the story.

Look at this passage from Patrick Henry’s “Speech to the Virginia Convention”:

“Is life so dear or peace so sweet as to be purchased at the price or chains and slavery?”

This rhetorical question – no answer expected or needed – clearly shows the author’s opinion. Also notice the nice alliteration of the letter “p”, which makes the passage memorable.

Another syntactical device is varying sentence structure in a passage. Simple sentences, compound sentences, complex, compound-complex sentences – all can be controlled by the writer to deliver a desired effect.

Note in the example below how J.D. Robb (Naked in Death) has wedged the complex sentence between two simple sentences. Consider the effect on the reader.

“She woke in the dark. Through the slats on the window shades, the first murky hint of dawn slipped, slanting shadowy bars over the bed. It was like waking in a cell.”

Also from the same book:

“He had a vision of himself dragging her to the floor, pounding himself into her until her screams echoed like gunshots, and his release erupted like blood.”

Note the parallelism in the two participles (dragging and pounding) and the parallel similes (“like gunshots” and “like blood”). This is particularly evocative because in this scene Roarke and Eve are in the gun collection room, surrounded by the implements of death and blood. The primitive sexual feelings he experiences are underscored by the environment.

Parallel structure from Sherry Thomas’ Private Arrangements:

“His kiss was as light as meringue, as gentle as the opening notes of Moonlight Sonata, and as nourishing as the first rain of spring after an endless winter drought.”

Not only does Thomas maintain the parallelism with the “as – as” construction, but each subsequent phrase is longer than the one before it. If she’d put the last phrase in the middle of the sentence, the meter and continuity and smoothness of the sentence would be lost.

Note: Strong writers may create these kinds of constructions subconsciously (leaving the analysis to us English teachers) or deliberately, but they never allow the syntax to drive them. They drive their syntax.

Diction and syntax also account for rhythm. The English language is a series of accented and unaccented syllables that can be arranged to be very pleasant or very jarring to the ear.

During revision or rewrites consider where you’ve placed words, phrases, and sentences for maximum effect. Choose words that convey the tone you’ve intended. A strong use of these devices enhances your voice. For example, we could read passages by Hemingway and Faulkner and easily distinguish between them. Their voices are that distinctive.

Revision is not editing. Editing attends to the mechanics of the language. Manipulating the language to a specific purpose – that’s revision!




The Hitman Series features inveterate hitman Logan, who as he approaches the age of forty, begins to find life boring especially during the Christmas holiday season. An unexpected assignment, rare at this time of the year, places him in an awkward and disconcerting place as he becomes fascinated by the celebrations around him and tries to make meaning of his life as a professional hitman. Has Logan traveled a dark path too long to find redemption?

In the second story street urchin Maggie and Logan flee from another kind of danger – this time a hit on them. They must act quickly to remain safe. The third story introduces another cold-blooded killer from Logan’s past who threatens to shatter what little peace the characters have gained.

The series should be read in order for full impact of the story threads that link Logan with an almost-thirteen-year-old Maggie and a helpless but beguiling infant. The stories also are available individually.


Bio: Jo Robertson, a former high school English teacher, lives in northern California, near the beautiful Sierra Nevada foothills. She enjoys reading, scrapbooking, and discussing the latest in books, movies, and television shows. Any “spare” time she has is spent enjoying her seven children and sixteen grandchildren.

When her Advanced Placement English students challenged her to quit talking about writing and “just do it,” she wrote her first completed manuscript, The Watcher, which won the 2006 Golden Heart Award for romantic suspense. Her second book, The Avenger, won the overall Daphne du Maurier Award for Excellence in 2007. She’s authored five romantic and historical thrillers, one young adult novel, and seven novellas, including her popular Hitman Series.

To learn more about Jo, visit her website.

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