Posted On June 13, 2014 by Print This Post

Jo Robertson on Revision with Diction and Syntax

Author Jo Robertson visits the RU campus today with an excellent post on the importance of sentence structure and word choices. 

Welcome back to RU, Jo! 

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. JoRobertson,_author_photoEffective 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!

Here’s a question for our readers today: We’re all burdened with the onerous task of revision, no getting around that! As a writer, what part of revision is the hardest for you? The easiest? How do you tackle the task of rewrites? We’d love you to share your trick of the trade today.

Be sure to join us on Monday, June 16th, when we host our South Asian Author panel. 




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.

Jo’s latest work is a collection of her Hitman Series.

To learn more about Jo, visit her website.

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18 Responses to “Jo Robertson on Revision with Diction and Syntax”

  1. Jo, I always learn so much from you. Can’t wait to read The Hitman’s Heart — you, my friend, are a teacher by profession and heart. Thank you!

    Posted by | June 13, 2014, 10:08 am
  2. Jo, what a great article. Some superb advice there! I think something else that helps you develop a sense of the rhythm of your writing – or at least the rhythm you’d like your writing to have! – is to read it aloud. It’s amazing what the ear will pick up that the eye won’t.

    Posted by Anna Campbell | June 13, 2014, 11:52 am
  3. Hi Jo – Great to see you here! This post is close to my heart because I love, love, love words! (Sometimes too much…)

    Thanks for the excellent advice!

    As to the hardest part of revision? For me, it’s pretty much everything! But no one writes because it’s easy, do they? I just muddle on!

    Posted by Becke Martin Davis | June 13, 2014, 12:37 pm
  4. I, like Jo above, read my work aloud. I can’t stress enough how helpful it is.

    Posted by Angie Sargenti | June 13, 2014, 1:54 pm
  5. Great ideas and examples – especially the importance of selecting the exact word to convey meaning and tone. Invariably, I find no matter how many times I go through a manuscript that there are always more precise words to use. It really alters the feel and sound of a finished work. While I enjoy the deluge of new works hitting the market every week, I notice that in the rush to publish many authors don’t enjoy this process of word selection as fully as I enjoy reading the end-result. The books are still enjoyable but they don’t always have the lingering after-aroma of a tightly-woven story.

    I love reading the ideas behind these choices. Rhythm is another of those elusive abilities that some writers seem to naturally incorporate. Good rhythm in a book is the literary equivalent of music. Fun post.

    Posted by Lesann | June 13, 2014, 2:12 pm
  6. Afternoon Jo!

    Excellent post, I’m definitely re-reading it again!

    The hardest part of revision for me? Just doing it….lol….major procrastination when it comes to doing revisions! I’ve managed to put one off since December. Ugh!

    Thanks for a fab post Jo!


    Posted by Carrie Spencer | June 13, 2014, 3:12 pm
  7. Hi Jo,

    This is the best explanation of syntax I’ve ever read. Not sure if this makes sense but the hardest part is rewriting the wordy sentences and as you pointed out, finding that perfect word choice that conveys the tone and meaning without ruining the rhythm of the sentence.

    Thanks for a keeper post. We loved having you with us today!

    Posted by Jennifer Tanner | June 13, 2014, 10:56 pm
  8. Jo,

    What a wonderful article and refresher on diction and syntax. I’ll be referring back to it when I get to the revision stage of my WIP! I may forward this to my niece who is in honors English next year.

    Posted by Suzanne Ferrell | June 14, 2014, 1:35 am
  9. What a great post!

    I am currently in that dreaded time of revision in my wip. And I agree with everyone who mentioned reading aloud, it sure helps you to see/hear both the syntax and rhythm (and quite often, the lack thereof!)

    I’m going to share this post with some of my fellow-writer friends. I’m sure it will be as helpful for them as it was for me!

    Posted by Sharon Ricklin Jones | June 22, 2014, 4:50 pm

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