A writers toolbox is filled with all sorts of words and phrases.
Sometimes we make them up. Sometimes we borrow them, with slight changes. Sometimes we downright steal them. We rearrange, combine, break up, juxtapose, contrast and modernize.
With over a quarter of a million words in current use, the possibilities are seemingly endless and illumination is just around the corner. Any writer can create beauty, vividness, light and darkness. With so many words at our fingertips, with so many tools at our disposal, what can we not do?
But at the same time, we have to be careful. It’s completely possible to drown in our own deluge of words. Precision, not quantity, should be our aim. Heaven knows, it’s easy enough to be lulled into listening to the sound of our own pontificating.
Don’t get me wrong though, simplistic brevity shouldn’t be our aim either. It’s just as possible to eviscerate the soul of our message in pursuit of what we mistakenly term clarity as it is to artificially fill our writing with mere stuffing.
I’ve written phrases like ‘In a hasty manner he…’ rather than ‘Hastily he…” before and I’m sure I’ll write them again.
The second reads better and communicates more efficiently, but there’s nothing inherently wrong with the first. The first could be entirely appropriate depending on the flow you’re trying to create in the mind of your reader, and the tone of your piece.
But it must be a choice, not slovenliness. If you make the choice to be vague, that’s entirely different from mere sloppiness and ineffective communication. Some of the greatest writers of all time intentionally leave much to the imagination. Instead, it’s all about creating the habit of precision.
That leaves us with the question, How in the world do we start to put this habit into practice?
When you want to get your body fit you go running, lift weights, join a gym; when you want to exercise your voice you sing scales, hold notes, improve your breathing; when you want to improve your soul you love difficult people, go out of your way, and invest in other souls.
But how do you get your speech fit? How do you exercise your language? How do you improve your skill with words?
First, you can start paying attention. Listen to yourself as you talk. Are you falling into vague speech patterns and default phrases? I listened to myself for an entire hour as I talked with various people about my apartment and was shocked at how little I actually say. I tend to respond to the feel and tone of what others say, rather than the words they’re actually speaking. And in my responses I use feel and tone far more than truly precise language.
I say ‘He’s a gentleman.’ The term gentleman originally meant a man who owned his own land, but I use it as a term of approbation and approval. I’m saying nothing more than, he’s acting as I think a gentleman should. Gentleman, to me, is nothing more than a wishy-washy opinion rather than hard, concrete expression. Much better would be ‘He has exquisite manners.’
Second, read the old books and watch the evolution of words. History is freighted with meaning and can only enrich our appreciation. The word ‘ruin’ originally had the same connotation as ‘falling’ so that when we read Shakespeare’s phrase “bare, ruined choirs” we must sense the height, sense the act of downward motion, sense the rushing finality. Much of our appreciation of poetry stems from this association between words and will flood our own writing with a new sense of life.
And thirdly, edit your writing for precision. Don’t be satisfied. Question your first draft. Rewrite sentences. Re-craft phrasing. Put yourself in the mindset of the reader for a moment, and cease to be The Writer. You already know what you’re trying to say, so it’s easy for you to understand yourself. Much of the skill associated with editing is stepping out of writer mode and into the mode of reader.
It’s too easy to be vague…it’s too common and it’s too cheap. Let’s rise above and give our audiences a gift. Let’s decide to grow our skill with the tools of our trade this year, and practice precision. In a gentle way push those around you to be precise, and ask them to return the favor. Listen to yourself, and pay attention to the force of your expression.
We’ll be better writers for it. We’ll be more effective and we’ll make a more profound impact on the lives of those who read our words.
Who’s with me?