[Tipster] The Importance of Diction: A Poppy Isn't Just a Poppy

tipster post May 20, 2022

Every spring my mom crosses her fingers and prays a thousand little prayers that the poppies will bloom at the base of the Organ Mountains, in Las Cruces, New Mexico. 
It’s the desert. 
Most years the soil cracks like concrete. Too much sun. Too little water. 
An ironic setting for fragile blooms.  
But if there’s enough water throughout the winter and early spring, my mom gets to experience the miracle of the mid-March poppy bloom—a wild, flaming garden.
I’ve been thinking a lot about poppies this week. 
Strange, because they aren’t even my favorite flower. I’ve never had luck growing them in my mostly too-shady Zone 5 garden.
But a lesson I was developing on diction brought me to “the poppy.”
What Are Your Lazy Words?
When we write, there are words that we love, and because we love them, we overuse them.
One word I frequently use is “whimsical”: playfully quaint or fanciful, especially in an appealing and amusing way. 
I use it to describe just about anything. 
A whimsical story. A whimsical object. A whimsical outfit. A whimsical flower (that, of course, being the poppy!).
Describing the poppy “as a whimsical flower” isn’t a terrible writing effort. 
You get the sense that the flower is more playful than a Hosta. 
But it isn’t the best description, either. As a reader, you don’t know what in particular I think makes it whimsical.

As an exercise, I pushed myself to describe the poppy in a variety of ways: 

  • The petals were the color of overripe cantaloupe. 

  • The stem was both stringy and prickly, bendy but at attention to the sun. 

  • Its petals were crinkly like grandma’s hand.

  • ​Caged by boxwoods, the flower resisted being tamed. It rioted. It danced, bending and swaying. 

Not great. But better. 

Poetry Is a Gift

While doing this exercise, I Googled “poppies.”

A poem by English poet Ted Hughes, “Big Poppy,” caught my attention. 

He describes the poppy as having a “flame fringe,” as a “drunken, fractured goblet” and even as having an “athletic leg, hairy.” 

Hughes personifies the poppy as a female who at the end of summer will “fling off her skirt.”

Hughes’ choice of words, or diction, helps us envision a poppy in a new way: sensual, strong, and verging on dangerous. Imagine if Ted Hughes simply wrote, "the poppy was sensual." That description is flat.

Word choice matters. A poppy can be whimsical. 

A poppy can be sensual. 

Or a poppy can bloom in unlikely places.

As you write, what words are you prone to overuse?

One exercise is to slow down and ask yourself, “What does this word really mean to me, and how can I use diction to convey what’s in my mind?”

This will slow you down. But writing is slow work. It’s difficult work. 

But the payoff? 

A poppy in the desert.