Choose your words carefully

less-moreWhen I started out writing fiction, I thought all kinds of things were clever. Like using lots of different words. Better still, using really long ones. Like antidisestablishmentarianism (OK, maybe not that one). Over the years, my tastes have changed. Now my hair’s a little greyer and my joints a little stiffer, I like my prose less purple. Less is more, as the man said.

Except … ‘less’ isn’t quite what I mean (although certainly most sentences are at their best when they’re written with the minimum number of words necessary to express the meaning). It’s about quality, not quantity. It’s not about using fewer words. It’s about choosing the right ones.

I have a theory about why this matters so much to me. When you write in the fantasy genre, you have to tailor your vocabulary to suit the world you’ve created. If I’m writing a book in which the main characters are dragons, I have to choose the words most appropriate to their point of view. Thus the vocabulary of the story – compared to the sum total of all the words I know – is restricted.

Actually this is true of all fiction. If I’m writing a story about the gangs of New York, I have to tailor my language accordingly. It’s just that certain genres throw the issue into sharper relief.

Here’s an example. One of my New York mobsters is dangling from the ledge of a tall building. Members of a rival gang chased him up there and now he’s got nowhere to go. The winter wind is cutting into his face. I want to use a simile to describe how sharp that wind is. It could be as sharp as a switchblade or straight razor, cheesewire or barbed wire, cut glass, his girlfriend’s tongue, vitriol … there’s plenty of choice.

Now consider my current work-in-progress. It’s a novel set in the late neolithic period, before man had started to work metal. Primitive times. Picture my hero – no mobster this but a travelling bard clad in motley animal skins – hanging from the edge of a high cliff over a stormy sea. The wind’s just as sharp as that blizzard cutting through the Big Apple. But it can’t be as sharp as a switchblade, because switchblades haven’t been invented yet. Instead, it has to be as sharp as broken ice, or wolf’s teeth, or a briar hedge …

You get the picture? Choose the wrong words and you’ll jerk the reader right out of the imaginary world you’ve worked so hard to create. Word are scenery, you see. Some of the New York similes I’ve suggested above are okay, but frankly the neolithic ones stink. If I really was writing that scene I’d have to work a lot harder than that. And that’s the thing. When you’ve got the entire history of civilisation to trawl through, finding comparisons is easy. When civilisation hasn’t even been invented yet, you have to dig a little deeper.

You might think I’m complaining. I’m not. The best art flows from a restricted palette. And me, I love a challenge. So here’s the bottom line. You might be fishing in a big vocabulary pool or a small one, it’s all the same. Only one thing matters.

Catching the right word.

5 thoughts on “Choose your words carefully

  1. Thanks for the tip Graham, it’s kind of you a published writer to share the tricks of the trade with us amateurs, ah I speak for myself. Any advice on how to get published? Sorry guess you have been asked this a lot. Would it be very cheeky if I asked you to read my latest blog and give quick feedback? If you are too busy no worries. Just don’t want to delude myself I am good when I am rubbish.

    1. There are no easy tricks. The best advice I can give is simply to keep writing and keep reading. The more you do of both, the more you’ll hone your craft. Keep submitting work, thicken your skin against rejections, love what you do and who knows what may lie around the corner?

      1. Thanks for prompt response and the advice Graham. I love reading and writing. Remember when I was a wee lass used to lock myself in the loo where I couldn’t be disturbed and just read and read. When it was time for dinner they knew where to find me. Subsequently I read Engl Lit at univ cos I didnt want to do anything else but read. In retrospect maybe Law would have been more pragmatic but didn’t have career guidance from mum and dad cos they didn’t speak the lingo and unfamiliar with the English education system. Had its advantages so we could do what we liked.

        Love writing too, great therapy. Wrote horrific amount of poems concerning Heartbreak Hotel in 2010 , very cathartic, didn’t know any other way of getting the pain out. Words have been my first love and will be my last.

        Sorry rambling on. Btw is it necessary for me to state my blogs are copyrighted even though I am not a published/ professional writer?

        Thanks again. Cho Wan

        1. You own the intellectual property to everything you write and it’s always sensible to assert that right of ownership with a copyright statement. At the same time, you have to accept that anything published online is vulnerable to piracy. Good luck with the writing!

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