Writing is hard.
Putting words on a blank page, deciding where and how to begin a scene, slipping in clues you want the reader to gloss over but recall later, using dialogue to reveal plot and character, layering in sensory details—all this and more is required. Dorothy Parker famously said: “I hate writing. I love having written.”
I get that.
One aspect of writing is pure joy for me, though—romancing the words. What I mean is using vocabulary, syntax, and the natural rhythm of the English language to tell a story.
I love reading books that increase my vocabulary—stories that give me new words in context so I don’t have to haul out the dictionary. I write about the antiques trade, and some words will be unfamiliar to my readers. My job is to define those words in a natural way—in dialogue, for example. When one character uses words that require definition, I often have another character say, “I’m confused,” or “I don’t get that,” giving me a chance to tuck in a bit of explanation.
Word choice increases reading comprehension by nailing down meaning. Why use “rain” when you could use “shower” or “cloudburst” or “squall?” Find the word that best fits your meaning.
Words give the reader pleasure. I love reading and writing books that use words to create subtext and humor. Words create visual images in the reader’s mind. Christopher Fowler, author of the Bryant & May series, described one character, in mid-rant, as “an unpricked sausage, ready to burst.” In A Rule Against Murder, Louise Penny wrote: “But you want murderous feelings? Hang around librarians,” confided Gamache. “All that silence. Gives them ideas.”
Syntax, the way English is commonly spoken, is a tool in the writer’s toolbox. Early on in my writing career I spent a summer online with Nancy Pinard, a wonderful writer and teacher who sadly passed away several years ago. She taught me that the end of a sentence is “the power position.” Compare these sentences:
I never speak with customers in my job.
In my job I never speak with customers.
In the first sentence, the most important concept is “my job.” In the second sentence, the most important concept is “with customers.” In general, strong sentences end on the most important element. The final phrase and word is the one the reader will remember.
Pinard also taught me that a writer can hide clues in a list. Let’s say, for example, that a broken lamp will turn out to be a major clue, but you don’t want the reader to twig to that right away, so you minimize it in the middle of a list:
The room was a mess. Drawers had been pulled open, their contents scattered on the red wool Persian rug. A glass lamp lay shattered on the floor. A tall French window swung open, the filmy curtains damp and twisted by the wind.
Chances are the reader will remember, visually, the contents of the drawers scattered on the carpet and those twisted and damp curtains. The shattered glass lamp hides in the middle.
3. NATURAL RHYTHM
The best article I’ve ever read on the rhythm of language appeared in the September 2019 issue of Writer’s Digest. Writer, teacher, and blogger Barbara Baig (Spellbinding Sentences, Writer’s Digest Books) actually wrote two articles for that issue: “Writing in Rhythm,” and “The Music of Language.” She said:
Often when people talk about ‘the music of language’ they make it sound like a mere frill, something we add to ‘dress up’ plain writing. I don’t agree with this view. At the heart of language, I hear music—word-music, akin in many ways to instrumental music or song. I agree with the poet Robert Pinsky, who has said about ordinary speech, ‘It is almost as if we sing to one another all day.’
Varying the rhythm of phrases and sentences adds variety and interest. Rhythm gives the reader clues to the tiny pauses before and after phrases that help them process meaning. Rhythm can smooth out sentences and paragraphs so the reader isn’t forced to stop and reread. Rhythm can create choppy chunks of language that add tension and speed up a scene. Rhythm can make the words sing.
For me, romancing the words is a process that usually happens in revision.
Is there a phrase or a sentence in literature you will never forget? What new word have you recently learned from a novel?
Another terrific post, Connie. If new writers do nothing more than follow these points, they can’t help but improve their writing.
Thanks, Grace. There’s so much to learn–and so much room to grow.