It is more fun to talk with someone who doesn’t use long, difficult words but rather short, easy words like “What about lunch?” ~ Winnie the Pooh
One of my favorite books when I was in high school wasn’t a novel or a biography or even a narrative of any kind: It was a well-thumbed red paperback of Roget’s Thesaurus.
In hindsight, I used a thesaurus in exactly the way I now tell my students not to use it: I looked for fancy words to replace plain ones. I searched for words that were more capacious, commodious, humongous, substantial, super colossal, tremendous, walloping. In short, longer. The problem is that longer words are often not the words that best convey our meaning, as William Strunk and E.B. White knew so well:
14. Avoid fancy words.
Avoid the elaborate, the pretentious, the coy, and the cute. Do not be tempted by a twenty-dollar word when there is a ten-center handy, ready and able. Anglo-Saxon is a livelier tongue than Latin, so use Anglo -Saxon words. In this, as in so many matters pertaining to style, one’s ear must be one’s guide: gut is a lustier noun than intestine, but the two words are not interchangeable, because gut is often inappropriate, being too coarse for the context. Never call a stomach a tummy without good reason.
If you admire fancy words, if every sky is beauteous, every blonde curvaceous, every intelligent child prodigious, if you are tickled by discombobulate, you will have a bad time with Reminder 14. What is wrong, you ask, with beauteous? No one knows, for sure. There is nothing wrong, really, with any word all are good, but some are better than others. A matter of ear, a matter of reading the books that sharpen the ear. The Elements of Style
There was another, less pedantic reason I loved that thesaurus, though. I enjoyed scanning lists of words, learning new ones, seeing them play off one another and hearing them in my head.
While misuse of a thesaurus can produce graceless and insincere writing, wise use can lead to greater precision, variety, and depth.
Here are a few deliberate writing practice ideas for honing your “plain and fancy”word skills.
1. Use a thesaurus when the word you are using isn’t quite right. For example, if you are trying to describe how a character is worried or how you are worried about something, but worried seems too broad, a thesaurus can help you to hone your meaning to apprehensive, disturbed, fearful, on edge, tormented, or uneasy.
2. Look up the derivations of synonyms for a common word to see and hear the difference in tone between Anglo-Saxon and Latin roots (www.dictionary.reference.com allows you to switch easily between a dictionary and a thesaurus for this exercise). For example:
before 1000; Middle English: big, bold, comely, proper, ready, Old English getæl (plural getale ) quick, ready, competent; cognate with Old High German gizal quick
1490–1500; < Latin ēlevātus lightened, lifted up (past participle of ēlevāre )
3. Think of whether your characters would use plain or fancy words, and use a thesaurus to differentiate their speech so as to suggest their personalities.
4. Choose a passage by a favorite author to rewrite, using a thesaurus to change the tone. For example, replace the stricken words of the beginning of Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone to experiment with tone and style:
THE BOY WHO LIVED.
Mr. and Mrs. Dursley, of number four, Privet Drive, were proud to say that they were perfectly normal, thank you very much. They were the last people you’d expect to be involved in anything strange or mysterious, because they just didn’t hold with such nonsense.
Mr. Dursley was the director of a firm called Grunnings, which made drills. He was a big, beefy man with hardly any neck, although he did have a very large mustache. Mrs. Dursley was thin and blonde and had nearly twice the usual amount of neck, which came in very useful as she spent so much of her time craning over garden fences, spying on the neighbors. The Dursleys had a small son called Dudley and in their opinion there was no finer boy anywhere.
5. Take a paragraph of your own and analyze it based on plain or fancy words, word derivations, and conscious use of precision for each and every word choice.
When you are in a library or bookstore, how do you choose which books to take home? In addition to checking out the back cover for blurbs from either published authors I admire or prominent book reviews, I usually read the first page or first paragraph, and I know.
But what do I know?
An article by Nick Mamatas in the most recent issue of The Writer discusses how a good first paragraph doesn’t necessarily have the “hook” we’ve been told it must have:
“The start of a story, its first paragraph, should assure the reader that he is in capable hands. The beginning of the story should tantalize, not hook, the reader.”
Some good examples of this come from the novels of one of my favorite writers, Willa Cather, whose writing and life crossed geographical boundaries of personal interest to me and whose prose never fails to stir something deep inside my writer’s soul. For more about Willa Cather’s life and work and why I love her so, read Kathleen Norris’s essay written for American Masters.
Here are examples of how Cather tantalizes rather than hooks the reader in her first paragraphs, how she assures us that we are in capable hands:
I first heard of Antonia on what seemed to me an interminable journey across the great midland plain of North America. I was ten years old then; I had lost both my father and mother within a year, and my Virginia relatives were sending me out to my grandparents, who lived in Nebraska. I travelled in the care of a mountain boy, Jake Marpole, one of the “hands” on my father’s old farm under the Blue Ridge, who was now going West to work for my grandfather. Jake’s experience of the world was not much wider than mine. He had never been in a railway train until the morning when we set out together to try our fortunes in a new world.
Song of the Lark
Dr. Howard Archie had just come up from a game of pool with the Jewish clothier and two traveling men who happened to be staying overnight in Moonstone. His offices were in the Duke Block, over the drug store. Larry, the doctor’s man, had lit the overhead light in the waiting-room and the double student’s lamp on the desk in the study. The isinglass sides of the hard-coal burner were aglow, and the air in the study was so hot that as he came in the doctor opened the door into his little operating-room, where there was no stove. The waiting room was carpeted and stiffly furnished, something like a country parlor. The study had worn, unpainted floors, but there was a look of winter comfort about it. The doctor’s flat-top desk was large and well made; the papers were in orderly piles, under glass weights. Behind the stove a wide bookcase, with double glass doors, reached from the floor to the ceiling. It was filled with medical books of every thickness and color. On the top shelf stood a long row of thirty or forty volumes, bound all alike in dark mottled board covers, with imitation leather backs.
One January day, thirty years ago, the little town of Hanover, anchored on a windy Nebraska tableland, was trying not to be blown away. A mist of fine snowflakes was curling and eddying about the cluster of low drab buildings huddled on the gray prairie, under a gray sky. The dwelling-houses were set about haphazard on the tough prairie sod; some of them looked as if they had been moved in overnight, and others as if they were straying off by themselves, headed straight for the open plain. None of them had any appearance of permanence, and the howling wind blew under them as well as over them. The main street was a deeply rutted road, now frozen hard, which ran from the squat red railway station and the grain “elevator” at the north end of the town to the lumber yard and the horse pond at the south end. On either side of this road straggled two uneven rows of wooden buildings; the general merchandise stores, the two banks, the drug store, the feed store, the saloon, the post-office. The board sidewalks were gray with trampled snow, but at two o’clock in the afternoon the shopkeepers, having come back from dinner, were keeping well behind their frosty windows. The children were all in school, and there was nobody abroad in the streets but a few rough-looking countrymen in coarse overcoats, with their long caps pulled down to their noses. Some of them had brought their wives to town, and now and then a red or a plaid shawl flashed out of one store into the shelter of another. At the hitch-bars along the street a few heavy work-horses, harnessed to farm wagons, shivered under their blankets. About the station everything was quiet, for there would not be another train in until night.
Each of these openings serves a different purpose. The first, from My Antonia, draws us into the voice of the first-person narrator and introduces us in a natural and easy way to his world and circumstances and immediate problem and goal. The second, from Song of the Lark, uses rich detail to paint a portrait of Dr. Howard Archie (notice how we learn he has “a man” but that his books have “imitation leather backs,” how his papers are in “orderly piles” on a “well made” desk, all clues to his character and status). Finally, my favorite, from O Pioneers!, makes the town of Hanover which “was trying not to be blown away” as real and familiar to us as our own back yard.
What they all have in common is an absolute certainty that the story is going somewhere and that the author knows how to take us there. “Take my hand; let’s take a journey,” she seems to say.
Practice Inspired by Willa
Just as pianists never stop perfecting scales, writers can continue to improve and refine their skills with deliberate practice that may never be read by anyone else. Scott H. Young has written an excellent piece the idea of writing practice for mastery: “Getting Good: How I’m Trying To Be a Better Writer“. He offers several ideas from his own experience of how one can develop a plan to practice writing so as to reach one’s personal goals.
One way writers can practice deliberately—sentence variety, paragraph structures, concrete vs. abstract words, style and voice, satisfying conclusions, so many more—is by copying the style or rhythm or tone of favorite sentences or passages, especially opening passages. Challenge yourself to write an opening paragraph of one of your own projects in the style of Willa Cather. How does it change your story? What new skills have you added to your writing repertoire?
How can you use your opening paragraph(s) to reassure your readers that you know where you are going and to tantalize them to read further?
“The people at the top don’t work just harder, or even much harder than everyone else. They work much, much harder.” ~ Malcolm Gladwell
In Outliers: The Story of Success, Malcolm Gladwell discusses research by K. Anders Ericsson suggesting that expertise and success are far from being just about talent. They are built slowly, from deliberate practice: roughly 10,000 hours worth, the equivalent of four hours per weekday for ten years, two hours for twenty years, and so on.
You might think, Well I’ve certainly written for more than 10,000 hours in my life! Where is my name on the best-seller list?
We may want to reconsider how we are practicing. The authors of Freakonomics, in a New York Times Magazine story on Ericsson’s study, explain:
“Deliberate practice entails more than simply repeating a task—playing a C-minor scale 100 times, for instance, or hitting tennis serves until your shoulder pops out of its socket. Rather, it involves setting specific goals, obtaining immediate feedback and concentrating as much on technique as on outcome.” Read More
Writers can ask themselves this question: Am I doing some writing task today, even if just for an hour, that counts as deliberate practice?
Does thinking about writing count? No.
Does reading about writing count? No, although it helps in other ways.
Does blogging count? Maybe, if we do it with focus and with concentration on technique.
Does writing or editing part of a planned work in progress count? Absolutely.
Author Mark Terry puts it bluntly:
“If you want to be a professional writer—fiction or nonfiction or poetry or whatever—you’re going to have to put in the time. You’re going to have to write a lot—a million words, maybe. A lot of it will be crap. A lot of it will never see the light of day. You’ll need to move through ‘familiarity’ to ‘mastery’ and in between those two there’s a fair amount of boredom and frustration.” Read More
Are talent or luck involved at all? Yes, but, let’s face it: We can’t control those factors.
The refreshing aspect of Ericsson’s conclusions is that we can control how hard we work, one hour at a time.
A couple of blogs to pass along this morning. First, in honor of the first full day of spring,Victoria at liv2write2day has posted a spring writing prompt for poetry or flash fiction. Her own poem in celebration of spring will be certain to awaken your seasonal passions. 🙂
Also, anyone who loves travel and world cultures and slice-of-life photography should head on over to the blog I Heart Mondegreens this morning for some delightful photos of the author’s favorite things about where she lives. While it’s easy to focus on the potential drawbacks of our plugged-in and online 21st century life, this kind of communication and connection—at once personal and global—is one of its virtues.
About I Heart Mondegreens: “Travel and international food lover. Originally from Los Angeles. Sleepless grad student. Married to D-Man the Spaniard and living in Southern Spain.”
A beautiful blog. Each photo holds the promise of a story and would serve as a terrific writing prompt.