An artist friend of mine often rolls a piece of paper into a tube and looks through it at a spot on her painting-in-progress.
She says it helps her to isolate a particular aspect of her painting, whether it be a tone or hue or whatever, and then to compare it to what’s around it. Separating it, she says, from the distraction of the surrounding parts lets her really see and analyze it. Only then can she determine whether it truly fits.
I stumbled onto a writing exercise the other day that acted as a paper tube isolation device for me.
Unfortunately, I can’t recall which book it was in at this moment, but the exercise was about finding your voice by uncomplicating the words you use. The task was to take a recent news event in my hometown and write a few paragraphs about it using one-syllable words only.
Working through the exercise forced me to really think about the words I was choosing.
Did they meet the one-syllable rule? Did they convey the meaning I was going for? Were they the right words? When I read over my finished news piece, I noticed how basic, but real, the writing was. I also noticed there was a distinct voice. Though I wouldn’t want to read an entire book written that way, it was a good exercise to help me see just how much word choice matters.
At its most basic form, writing is a series of choices.
Will you write a mystery or a romance? A psychological thriller or a young adult fantasy? What’s the premise, or plot? Setting? Tense? And so on. The choices only get more difficult when it comes time to write and edit. Which words will you use to express your ideas? How will you arrange those words into sentences and paragraphs and chapters?
Finding words that perfectly capture your meaning and perfectly convey that meaning to your readers through your voice is no small feat. What if your brain is acting like a bowl of oatmeal and can’t churn up the right word?
There are several things you can do:
1. Leave a blank for that word and keep going, then return to it later after your mind has had time to process.
2. Leave your work altogether.
Go take a shower or a walk or a drive. The word is likely to come out of hiding when you’re not looking for it.
3. Use a thesaurus to spawn ideas, to get you thinking, but don’t rely on the one that comes with your word-processing program. It’s not complete enough to give you the options you need. It’s like using skim milk when the recipe calls for heavy cream.
Remember, it’s your word choices that reveal your style, that give your writing personality, so it’s critical to isolate the perfect words that will best reveal your ideas to your readers, or so says Les Edgerton in his book Finding Your Voice – which, btw, is where I found the writing exercise I’m blogging about today! I hoped it would come to me before my time was up.
In case you’re curious, here’s an excerpt of my piece from the exercise. I’ll tell you what it’s about afterwards so you can judge for yourself whether I was clear in my word choices.
Guys and gals, young and old, flock to the loud bars at night in the old and dark heart of Duke town. Drinks and laughs fast turn to brawls and cries. Fists spill blood, crack teeth, and break bones. Spewed vile paints the streets. Half dead souls curl up at the curbs, and no one cares. The boys in blue rush in, knock heads, and haul all to jail. The day dawns for the nabbed ones with fines, pain, and stench. Their vows of “No more!” fill the ears of the court. Yet they are back at the bars the next night. And the next. And the next. And once more, the streets run red with blood, white with puke, and blue with cops. What can be done to stop this blight that eats the heart of our town and grieves us all?
The story is about the trouble my hometown is having in controlling the drinking and drinking-related fights and crimes in the heart of the city: the old downtown area. Were you able to get that from my piece? I hope so. (A side note – my hometown, Albuquerque, is called the Duke City. Because City is two syllables, I wrote “town.”)
Try this exercise yourself. It’s more difficult than you think. But it’s fun, and it’ll get you in the mindset of focusing on your word choices so you can write novels filled with personality. For more about this topic, take a look at Mr. Edgerton’s insightful book.
Peace, love, and happy writing everyone!