The Magic of Wordsmithing
The practice of wordsmithing is defined as making changes to a text to improve clarity and style, as opposed to content. A wordsmith is a person who works with words; especially a skillful writer. I’ve been thinking of word choice more than usual lately because my daughter is applying to college; and for those of you who do not know the joy of the common application, among other things, it requires each student to fill in a 650-word essay. Every word counts. Literally. Writers know that every word should always count, and yet I know I’ve been guilty of ignoring that wisdom on more than one occasion. Now that I spend a lot of my life thinking about words: how to order them, how many are necessary, which ones to choose and which ones not to, I have found myself entranced with those writers who do it well. For me, a wordsmith is like a magician: they leave me dazzled, but unable to quite figure how the trick was done. I want to be one of them; one of those magicians. At least once in a while. So, I’ve been watching for the sleight of hand, the well-timed distraction, the puff of smoke. Although I’m still far from having figured it all out, I think I’ve picked up a few tricks: (1) Read a lot and read a lot of different things. Reading quality work is inspiring, but I do think it’s worth reading books that aren’t necessarily top calibre. Martin Sheen said once that after spending a summer being a golf caddy at an exclusive country club, he learned what kind of man he did not want to be. I think the same can be said of writing. Reading things we don’t like can help us find what we aspire to write. (2) Pay attention to the unwritten word. I love music. A songwriter has very little time to convey a message, an emotion, a thought. It’s amazing how fresh and clever songwriters are. It inspires me. If you like poetry, rap or particularly well-spoken interviewing (think Terry Gross) and reporting, start listening carefully. You may pick up a trick or two. (3) Play games with words. A few years ago I signed up for–and completed–the Improv 101 class at the Upright Citizens Brigade. Yes, it confirmed my longstanding belief that comedians are smarter than the rest of us, but it also taught me that those improv geniuses practice; they practice a lot. One week our teacher asked us to associate as many words and ideas as we could with an object every time we walked down the street. One morning my brain went: dog walker–fire hydrant–bladder–trying to find a bathroom–toilet paper–scented candles. You get the idea. (4) Take your craft seriously. I’m working my way through Harold Evans’ Do I Make Myself Clear? Why Writing Well Matters. You may not agree with everything he says. I don’t, but it’s beyond debate that the man is an expert at the craft of writing. If you want to become one of the magicians, you have to spend some time learning how hide the quarter. Force yourself to double check definitions, punctuation and grammar rules. It’s not hard, and it will improve your skill. (5) Try and fail; and don’t be afraid to fail spectacularly. I’m a terrible skier. Really. When I was ten, we lived in France; and in those days skiing was part of the winter physical education curriculum. Everyone but me was a good skier. I promise you, I was the only one who fell, and, boy, did I fall. I could fall with my skis pointing in directions one would think were physically impossible. After one particularly awe-inspiring fall, my teacher gracefully glided down to me, helped me to my feet and smiled. She told me that only someone who was really pushing herself to improve can fall like I did. Of course, I know she was trying to get me down the mountain, but she did teach me an important lesson. Playing it safe doesn’t teach you that much. (Please leave aside the fact that I’m still a terrible skier for the purpose of this story.) So, that’s it for me. What suggestions do you have for becoming a skilled wordsmith?