I love words. I collected them like a raven collects shiny bits of things. I horde them, secreting them away to pull out on cold winter nights to look at and savor, to enrich myself with the depth of meaning, the foreign feeling, the difference they offer my life. I love words that are not common, but once were. In fact, I mourn the fact that so many wonderful words have left us to be replaced. For example—zounds as a swear word—once considered out on the edge, it means “by the wounds of God”. Now, just an out of date boring word.
That love of words carries over into my daily life. I love to hear different words, and while I am definitely not adept at learning foreign languages, I do love to have a few little words, small coins in my purse to pull out and trade when I am out of the country. I know how to say thank you in eight or nine languages, hello in seven or eight. And then the odd word that is utterly useless. I know how to say badger in Danish. Which is very useful in almost no conversation ever.
It’s odd, though, that my favorite writers, those that I idolize have very few… “big” words. What I mean is that they write with a simplicity of language, a parcity of words that makes what they have created so much more that mere type on a page. These writers have not fallen into the trap that bigger is better, or even that longer is better. They use a few short phrases and suddenly the beauty or horror, the love or hate they are expressing hits me in the gut and I am there.
One of my idols, Patrick O’Brian, wrote the magnificent Aubrey/Maturin books. The first bookMaster and Commander lacks something, and I know why. He had fallen into the trap he frees himself of later. By book three HMS Surprise, his language is beautiful. Those are books I read as much for the words as I do for the story. I love Jack and Stephen, but the writing is what I truly love. There is a moment in the book where he says “the winds had changed, the song in the rigging dropped by a full octave.” I have no doubt that should I ever sail on a ship is circumstances like that I will know that precise moment. And he does it so simply, so elegantly. No long words, no overblown waxing on. Only fourteen words and you know in your bones what it feels like, what it would be like to be there.
That simplicity is being lost. Of course, there have always been writers that overwrite, but the great writers really don’t. Even during the height of the florid Victorian era, the great writers don’t give you more than you need. Too much sugar ruins the dough, as does too much salt. The balance is difficult.
It’s getting harder for writers to find that balance today. We don’t value words. In a world that blithely accepts words shortened for texting, then allowing them into every day written language we are put to a test. And then we are further faced with the onslaught of new words. Words created merely because someone didn’t know that there was a fabulous word for what they are describing that already existed.
How does this affect me as a writer? It challenges me every time I sit down to write. I want my words to be beautiful. I want the scenes I create to live on, and I want someone to be in a moment and think “this is just like [fill in the blank]”. Will I ever be Patrick O’Brian? Maybe when I am ninety, when I have written hundreds of books and used my “instrument” of writing for many more years, I still doubt it.
Simplicity. As I write I stop myself many times and think “do I really need that word?” I don’t know if it comes from years of writing news and being held to a strict word count, or years of reading O’Brian, Twain, Christie and others, but I look at my work and question every word, every scene. Have I overwritten? Under or over-described? Can a simple word work? And then the biggie—did I just use that word to show off that I know that word whatever it is? For example “mellifluous” do I need to use that word? Or can I say “His voice was like the best chocolate.” It depends, and I need to search myself and decide if I want to use the word for its sake or to show off.
Easy to say, harder to write, but worth the effort every time.
I have been a writing all my life and have been published in newspapers, magazines and books. Recently, I have started working with writers helping them to learn to love their writing, and how we, as writers can learn from musicians and their techniques.
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