Tuesday, January 19, 2016

It's All About Words

Many years ago during an interview, the owner of one of the world’s all-time greatest voices, Luciano Pavarotti was asked what he was thinking about when he sang. One might have expected it to be the notes, the tale the song conveyed, head voice, the opening of the mouth, or any number of things. The great tenor’s reply was, “The next breath.” Of all the things that go into singing, he kept his mind focused on the most basic and most important of all the tools at a singer’s disposal. Without breathing, he can sing no song.

Writers of English works have twenty six tools of communication known as letters. Depending upon how they are combined, they become words. Words are a basic element for both oral and written communication. Each word has its own subtle meaning that differentiates it from all other words, including its synonyms. The job of the writer is not to simply put words on paper. It is to put the correct words on paper (or walls, or digital formats, or whatever your medium happens to be). Jonathan Swift put it better: Writing is proper words in proper places.

When in a quandary about which word is proper, there are a number of things to keep in mind that are useful in helping you out.

Invented and unusual words are to be used sparingly even when you are writing in one of the few genres in which they are appropriate, like poetry. However, unless your name is Francis Thompson or James Joyce, don’t be surprised when the critics bash your work. There are tens of thousands of words added to the English language since those men wrote. Don’t expect to get away with what you consider the ultimate creativity so easily.

Try putting the word or words you are considering in context. Read the passage out loud. If you don’t quickly find what feels like the perfect word to you, simply mark the place and move on. Don’t let finding the perfect word slow down your output. By the same token, when you get to The End, don’t forget to go back to those marked passages and rework them. In some cases, you may discover you already had the right word. Some will take longer than you think necessary to satisfy you. This is part of the craft of writing. a part sadly being lost in our make-a-buck-on-Amazon world.

Use a dictionary sparingly and a thesaurus frequently and judiciously. If it takes a dictionary for you to write a work, it will take a dictionary for a reader to read it. You won’t earn intellectual points. You’ll just make the reader angry or frustrated and lose them in the future. The best time to use a dictionary is for determining the subtle shades of difference in the meaning of words in a list in a thesaurus. Then try each word in context and decide which one gives the perfect shade of meaning to the thought you are trying to express.

Know the difference between connotative and denotative words. Connotative words tend to appeal to the emotional core. They also tend to express the author’s personal opinion. Whether you write fiction or nonfiction, your opinion has a place. Just make sure you are choosing wisely. Denotative words are generally used when expressing facts. Like connotative words, they have a place in both fiction and nonfiction. Denotative words should make a truth more easily understood. However, connotative words , while they may take longer, can make a truth understood,  incite an emotional response, and sway an opinion at the same time. Connotative words also tend to draw a reader more deeply into a fictional tale, leading to a greater degree of escapism, very important to authors of romantic fiction.

The words you use also depend on your audience and how much of yourself you are willing to risk in the writing, because in the end, the words you share will be used by others to judge you. Good or bad, make sure your word choices are the ones you truly wish to make.