Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Stuff My Writing Students Say, Part 9 : Words. They matter!

"One thing I've learned is that I need to analyze every single word carefully to see whether it's contributing and if not, replace it or cut it."

There's a tendency to read the above, and sort of snidely snicker, Duh.

But think again. This writer has articulated something some writers never seem to truly grasp. Or, have forgotten.

While every writer knows that words are the building blocks of their craft, and most writers are world class word geeks, the role of each individual word in a piece is sometimes overlooked. Once we get the "big idea," we skip to thinking in terms of themes, plots, topics, characters, scenes, images, flashbacks, feelings, etc. Oh we may vacillate over choosing the perfect word for that one powerful line of dialogue, or for the opening and/or the final sentence. We may silently high-five ourselves when we settle on the greatest word in a particularly good transition or description.

But sometimes we stop treating individual words as if they are gems to be handled with care, and instead begin deploying them with abandon, splattering them across the page as if it doesn't matter where they land, who their neighbors are, what impact they, as individuals, will have on the reader.

So occasionally, as the writing student quoted above notes, we need a reminder: Everything we do is about one word, then another. One word at a time. You know what? This is easy to forget when we are writing in increments of thousands of words. We begin thinking about sections, pages and chapters, instead of what our work really is: words. One word after another. Then another word. And another.

I do know writers who, in the first draft of a piece, will not move on from a sentence if one word strikes them as even slightly off, even it that sentence takes an hour or more to perfect. I like to power through first drafts, and then scrutinize every word later, during revisions -- and in final edits, in proofreading (and, heaven help me yes, even after publication).

I'm not going to advocate either system, but urge writers, at some point in the draft/ revision/rewrite/editing process, to take a long look at each word. And, frankly I'm a little miffed when students think of this as a bother.

Looking carefully at each word doesn't strike me in the least as onerous, but as the best fun a writer can have – playing with words. This one or that one? Big or small? Strong or soft? Common or unusual? Does this word contribute to my overall piece? To this sentence? This paragraph? Is it the best word? Is there a more precise word? A more interesting one? Can the word be cut entirely (I'm thinking of adverbs mostly, but also words like "that")? Would a more vivid, a more active, a more nuanced word be better?

Look, we're writers. We all love words. Let's treat them as if they actually matters. Every single one.

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