Sunday, March 7, 2010

The Craft of Language

Beginning to write also requires that you begin to pay attention to words. Writers learn to love the sound of words. They learn to eschew pompous words, designed to impress the reader, and despise empty, overused words. Instead, they love words in combinations, bouncing and bubbling, stretching and straining against one another.

First, good readers hear the sounds of words because a writer has selected his words carefully. For example, a good writer understands that drown is not an example of onomatopoeia, but it is potent. It cannot be said quickly or crisply. The two-vowel combination followed by an n stretches the word until it suggests sliding down or under. The use of drown or drawn or prawn, bound, and sing will slow the pace of the passage, especially if used in combination with other similar words.

On the other hand, some words are more staccato and clipped. They make the heart race and quicken the pace with consonants such as b, t, d or p. Brittle, belittle, dapple and drip do not stretch; they spring.

Second, writers study their audiences and choose vocabulary accordingly. A writer trying to publish in a professional journal for attorneys, physicians, or research scientists will choose vocabulary not frequently found in weekly news magazines or a good story. Professional journals employ vocabulary that allows professionals to describe accurately the issues that confront them, but the best writers know how to communicate with a larger, broader audience. Stephen Hawking’s essays and lectures about quantum physics or Stephen J. Gould’s books about biology and paleontology are wonderful examples of complex subjects made accessible with a beautiful blend of learned language and common words that form analogies and metaphors for the non-professional.

Good writers follow the example of Hawking and Gould. They blend uncommon words with common ones to form a delightful clarity and rhythm. Neither a writer nor a reader needs to know that olfactory describes smells and gustatory refers to taste. A good writer makes smells and tastes come alive without needing to dazzle the reader with his polysyllabic vocabulary.

Third, writers avoid common, overused words such as the one that plagues our conversations today. For example:

--I’ve gotta go!
--What’s your rush?
--I’ve got something to get.
--I’ve gotta get a dress to get with John Friday night. It’s gotta be simple and modest ‘cause he’s not a guy who gets worked up by gals who don’t get self-esteem.

Okay, I’m getting carried away with all those gots and gets, but I think you get my point: we seem to be addicted to get as the all-purpose verb. We are also enamored of you. Few bother to distinguish between he, she, it, they or them when you will stand in for everyone. Such habits, while perfectly acceptable in conversation with one’s least critical friends, should be hunted down and eradicated in one’s writing.

Writing Challenge:

Begin collecting words. Make lists of words and word combinations that delight, words that are fresh, telling and learned without being pompous or off-putting. Circle or highlight them in your own writing; copy them into a journal when you find them in others’ works. Finally, be ruthless as you examine your own work. Stamp out all forms of get and illogical or unnecessary uses of you. Play with other, more exact phrasing to replace such tired, overused words.