Monday, August 8, 2011

The Right Word

Roger Rosenblatt writes in his recent book, Unless It Moves the Human Heart The Craft and Art of Writing, “You need to remind yourself continually that every word counts, and to take Twain’s dictum to heart—that the difference between the word and the right word is the difference between the lightning bug and lightning”. Rosenblatt tells aspiring writers they are in the lightning business, “You need to remind yourself what not to do, as well as to recognize when you’ve done something effectively for the first time, so as not to say it again, poorly." The right word is often the unmodified word, and that the adornment of adjectives may suffocate the body under the clothes. Most nouns contain their own modifiers, what Emerson called, the speaking language of things, “ they will not be improved by a writer who wants to show off by making them any taller, fatter, happier, or prettier than they are.”

I find the example Francine Prose gives in Reading Like a Writer (a Guide for People Who Love Books And For Those Who Want to Write Them) to be helpful. Prose points to the first paragraph of Flannery O’ Connor’s A Good Man is Hard to Find, and in particular the first sentence: The Grandmother didn’t want to go to Florida. “The first declarative sentence could hardly be more plain: subject, verb, infinitive, preposition,” says Prose. “ There is not one adjective or adverb to distract us from the central fact. But how much is contained in these eight little words!”

As teacher, Prose further instructs, The grandmother didn’t want to go to Florida. The first sentence is a refusal, which in its very simplicity, emphasizes the force with which the old woman is digging in her heels. It’s a concentrated act of negative will, which we will come to understand in all its tragic folly—that is the foolishness of attempting to exert one’s will when fate or destiny (or as O’Connor would argue God) has other plans for us. And finally, the no nonsense austerity of the sentence’s construction gives it a kind of authority that—like Moby Dick’s first sentence , “ Call me Ishmael” - makes us feel that the author is in control, an authority that draws us farther into the story.

As writers, where do we find help in choosing the right word ? In becoming lightning, not just the lightning bug. The dictionary and a good thesaurus, of course. And by constant reading, both the classics and contemporary books. Compile a word list. You might consider keeping a small notepad nearby the book you’re reading to write down new, and interesting words you come across. Also by listening to others, and the words they use in describing an event, or person in their life. And as Prose suggests, to simplify, by using words that give a kind of authority.

Here is an easy exercise for you to consider, read through some favorite books and underline the type of sentences Prose and Rosenblatt highlight, or for practice, write several of your own first sentences by using words that give a kind of authority.

Referring again to Unless It Moves the Human Heart The Craft and Art of Writing, “If you’re going to write, you must think about words more seriously than you ever have. Learn to pick your spots, to chose when to use ordinary language, and special heightened language. But every word must be the only one for its place, and it must function in every way, not just adequately.”


Jennifer Rova said...

You followed Prose's advice: simple and to the point about how to write in the best way. Nice blog, Kathy!

Nancy Owens Barnes said...

Thank you Kathy for such an informative post. Love Twain's lightning bug - lightning analogy.

Kathy Cooney Dobbs said...

I thoroughly enjoyed, and recommend, 'Reading Like a Writer A Guide For People Who Love Books And For Those Who Want To Write Them' - Think both of you would like it, too ! I appreciate your comments. Thank you.

elizabethbrinton said...

There is so much good information being developed on this blog that I think we will have enough for a book of our own one day. We could also teach a class, not "bird by bird" to quote Annie Lamont, but blog by blog. Well done Kathy!

Paul Schwerdt said...

I hope you see these posts written five months later.

I just finished listening to Stephen King read his book, "On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft," and he quotes Mark Twain's lighting/lightning bug analogy. But he got to me when he said (and I think this is his own original motto), "The road to hell is paved with adverbs." So from this day forward I sincerely vow to carefully, fastidiously, and meticulously, avoid using them in my writing. But please, bloggers, please let me keep splitting my infinitives! :-)