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Wednesday, December 14, 2005

 

FINDING THE BEST WORDS FOR YOUR STORIES

The Last Word is the Right Word
The Best Word is the Correct word
by
Milton Trachtenburg
copyright, 1998

I find writing difficult, but not necessarily hard. The previous sentence is a takeoff of a posting in which the writer, referring to an exercise she was asked to perform, said, "I find the exercise hard." I replied, "I don't find it hard, but I do find it difficult." I find that cooking eggs for ten minutes makes them hard, while picking up mercury with your fingers is difficult.

Words: Although there are over two hundred and fifty thousand of them in the English language, we find it difficult to get a story right (rather than left?) -- no, what we find difficult is: To construct our story in such a manner that it gives to give reader an accurate portrayal of our thoughts and ideas. In order to accomplish the goal of “getting it right,’ we must select the best word, not some of the time, but, every time.

Contemplate the task of the writer seeking the best words to describe her ideas with that of a physician performing major surgery. Can you picture the surgeon saying, "Oops, well, it was close. The patient will probably survive." The patient may, but the doctor won't. To become a professional writer, we are held to the same exacting standards as the surgeon; we must say exactly what we mean to create the elements of a powerful story or we will not find a receptive marketplace.

When I advise a new writer how to find the best word, I tell her, "Don't use your head to find your best word; use your dictionary, thesaurus and every other tool of writing you can get your hands on. Without the correct and best words, there will be a flat plot, dead dialogue and worst of all. An uninteresting story. Words do not make a story. The correct and best words perform that function.

As a carpenter wouldn't try to drive a nail with a sledgehammer, nor a logger try to cut down a gnarled oak with a paring knife, why would a writer use non-descriptive words that lay flat, give flawed impressions and otherwise leave the story stranded? Starting a paragraph with a word such as "this" may be easy for the writer, but the reader will have to hunt her memory for the reference. The same rule applies when beginning a paragraph with the pronouns “he” or “she.” "Who is “he?" mutters the reader, pausing to remember . . . and perhaps remembering instead that she promised to call a friend and then makes the call, forgetting the book. If William Tell had settled for the same degree of accuracy the stories in this examples did, he would have been serving shish-ka-bobbed son for dinner -- with a pristine apple for dessert.

In an e-mail this morning, I received a newsletter from a writer who I had met on line. He sent a story to me that began: "It . . ." I didn't read past the first word. If the writer was so confident that the world would read anything he wrote that he didn't care enough about his readers to polish his first sentence, then I didn’t have enough interest to waste my time reading his work.

Careless writing is different from unskilled writing. New writers can be taught skills. Careless writing takes place when the writer either avoids attaining skills or is too lazy to edit his work, except, perhaps, to run the piece through a spell checker.

A developing writer needs to accept that the words they first commit to paper in a rough draft are nothing but the first words that came to mind, and rather than stop what she is doing to seek a better word, she typed or wrote the word that came to mind. A lazy writer will stop seeking a word at that juncture, hoping the reader, who herself may be a developing writer, will overlook it. Or worse yet, believe that she has a “right” to use any word she pleases to describe the story.

I agree with the writers who scream about their rights to say what they please. As a writer, we have the right to say anything that pleases us. However, as readers, we have a reciprocal right to stop reading anything that displeases us. When a novice writing group encourages this same writer by posting the following, "You've written a great story. I wouldn't change a word," her opinion that there is no need for greater accuracy is reinforced and she will take a pleasant opinion over one that offers structural or procedural advice.

Writing exciting poetry or prose requires us to convey images as well as ideas to the reader. When we choose less than the best words, we convey less than the complete image or idea. Metaphors, similes and paradoxes allow the reader to visualize our words. However, when we use one of these tools in an inappropriate or less than accurate manner, we leave our story flat, uninteresting or disharmonious. For instance, if I say, "It was colder than a log cabin in December," what have I said? The answer is: Nothing. Where is the log cabin? Wasn't it heated? The reader is now off on a side trip thinking about the nature of log cabins instead of the fact that the character is trapped in a cold place and may forget about our story altogether. Yet, many writers will leave careless mistakes such as the one I demonstrated. Since she knows what she meant, she assumes that the reader will also. The reader may deduce the meaning in a second, but in that second, the reader is out of the story, not immersed within its invisible boundaries. One element that makes a play believable is that the actors treat the props as if they were real. Writers need to show the same care with their words. Stories exist in the moinds of the reader only if we use the proper tools and the proper seeds to plant them there.

Words often have meaning far beyond their dictionary definition. The sounds of words, the rhythm of putting them in certain contexts to creating sentences and paragraphs that fit our story is as important as the words themselves. Editing and rewriting require more than a dictionary and thesaurus. The task of editing also require a “reader's ear.” If the words seem to have proper meaning, but a trained editor takes them apart, her actions should help you understand that you are reading with a preconceived notion that what you said means what you intended. If you hear the words rather than see them, the inconsistencies will appear. We need to weigh each word that we send out. Ask yourself, What is the exact meaning of this word?" and, "Is the word I chose the best word to describe the setting, action, thought, expression or feeling I'm trying to convey to my readers?" Treat each word you use as if you had to pay a dollar for it and you will begin to choose stronger words to represent your ideas.

I believe that anyone can learn to recognize the best words. The difficulty we encounter is that reading word by word takes time and energy. For a novice writer to achieve a tight story, she must care about results and have the discipline necessary to pursue the effects she desires . To get from here (your present level of writing) to there (developing the skill to tell a story that will delight a discriminating audience) requires you to perform the following tasks: First, you must forget every cliche you ever heard. Second, you need to learn new ways to describe action, appearance and intent without overusing adjectives.. Third, you need to eliminate most of the adverbs and replace them with action verbs. Fourth and most important, don't imitate other writers. Those that have great talent are unique and can't be imitated, and those that don't, have nothing you can use.

Write with care and diligence. Be open to opinions that differ from yours. Accept that writing to a level that will be marketable takes much time and even more effort. The writer who attains instant success probably took twenty years to achieve it.

To end where I began, remember, the right word is the last word on the last line only in countries where language is written left-to-right. The correct word is the best word no matter in which language you write.

Comments:
Reading your post was like giving glimpses to a short Manual of Creative writing.Thanks Milt for publishing it in your blog.It will definitely help the beginners like me to move ahead in our literary journey.
Regards,
Kumar
 
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