W3 Wise Words on Writing

W3 is a monthly newsletter for writers on a variety of topics from technique to the psychology of writing. It appears by the 15th of each month. More information is available from www.wisewordsonwriting.com

Tuesday, May 10, 2005

No 13. Committing Acts of Language


How many of you have confessed to a stranger that you are a writer only to be told, that they too are planning to take a month off to write a book? Yet can any of us imagine saying to a brain surgeon that we'd take a month off to learn to operate on the brain? (One writer friend claims to have said exactly that to a doctor after the doctor said he was going to write a book during a two-week holiday.)

Those who don't write often think writing is easy something to be whipped out on whim. You put words on paper in a recognizable format making sentences with a subject, verb, a direct object, maybe a preposition here or there. Add a period, a question mark or more rarely an exclamation point. Then after the first sentence, there's another and another, until you a paragraph, a page, a story, a novel. It's magic.

Good writing does not appear like magic. It takes work, discipline, commitment. As writers we commit acts of language.

It is not any noun or verb committed to paper that makes turns our work from a ditty into an opera, it is which noun and which verb is the best. It is building a sentence, a paragraph, a story, a novel as deliberately as carpenter constructs a house.

Words aren't just squiggly lines on paper. They have power to those that can decipher them. In a French movie, SWING, a middle class boy gives a gypsy girl the notebook where he had committed the contents of his soul to paper. After he leaves, she looks at the words and throws the notebook away. She can't read. His gift of words was lost to her. He, however, carried them away in his heart. Even without an audience, the young boy had committed acts of language.

Words carry weight, give color, make music. Words can say things that aren't there, reveal secrets, tell truths or lie. We as writers choose which words to give our thoughts. Sometimes they flow out of fingertips faster than we can type. Other times they stay locked in boxes as we search frantically for the key. One writer I know when she can't find the right word puts in a wrong one and marks it with color. She confessed that she will get up in the middle of the night if she wakes knowing the word that escaped her earlier to fire up the computer and scroll down until she finds the color and substitutes the better word. She says she needs to commit to a word. To know that it is that word and no other, that anything other than the final word she has chosen will weaken her story. Writer Isabelle Huggins in a workshop mentioned that once something wasn't working in a short story. It turned out to be the name of a piece of music. When she changed it, everything else fell in place.

Another writer was talking about his current work. He said he was at the stage when he was going over each sentence to decide whether to change a word here or there, rearrange the order, take out or add a detail.

When we start as writers we are often happy just to get the words on paper. As we learn our craft, we then begin to control our finished projects by realising that we can do without that adjective, we are better to show that action rather than tell about it. At this point, our writing although perhaps still inspired, becomes polished AND inspired. We become more confident that we have truly nailed that phrase rather than doubt our ability. We also develop an instinct of when, where and how our writing can be better.

Writing calls for deliberate and constant decisions not just on what our characters do, say, look like, feel and feel, but the language we use to describe all this. If a journey starts with a single step, a story starts with a word.

Is the color to describe the flower lilac, mauve, lavender, purple? Does the child run, lope, gallop, stumble across the yard? Is anger shown by throwing a vase or dropping it on purpose? Are his eyes guarded, open, laughing, tear-filled? Whenever we choose one over another we have committed an act of language.

Then when we have the right words in the right sequences we further commit ourselves to stacking them together in a way that pulls our readers along with us.

For example think of the following four sentences:

· She was sitting in the chair.

· She sat in the chair.

· She sat in her chair.

· She was rooted to her chair.

The last sentence gives a much stronger image to the reader than the rather mundane first one. Yet there may be a time when we want the mundane. The difference is when we consciously select the right words to create the right tone. That is when we commit acts of language.

I have always proudly told people I am a writer, but now I'm seriously thinking when someone asks me what I do, I will say "I commit acts of language."


"When I had written the first draft of Women and Nature, the book had a disorganized quality. I had several small chapters, some a paragraph, some a few pages, and no final sequence for them. And so I put the little pieces all in a logical order, by topic, or chronology or whatever seemed most reasonable. But his order did not 'work'. It was like a well-built bench that had no grace, and so one did not want to sit on it. So I began again putting the pieces together next to one another where the transition seemed wonderful, and that was when the shape of the book began to seem beautiful to me."

"…one morning I took my three-hundred page manuscript and began to lay it down on the floor, section by section. I put a two-page scene here, a ten-page sequence there. I put these pages down in a path, from beginning to end, like a horizontal line of dominoes, or like a garden path made of tiles. There were sections up front that clearly belonged in the middle, there were scenes in the last fifty pages that would be wonderful near the beginning, there were scenes and moments scattered throughout that could be collected and rewritten to make a great introduction to the two main characters. I walked up and down the path, moving batches of paper around, paper-clipping self-contained sections and scribbling notes to myself on how to shape or tighten or expand each section in whatever necessary way."
Annie Lamont BIRD BY BIRD

"The great writers keep writing about the cold dark place within, the water under a frozen lake or the secluded, camouflaged hole. The light they shine on this hole, this pit, helps us cut away or step around the brush and brambles; then we can dance around the rim of the abyss, holler into it, measure it, throw rocks in it, and still not fall in. It can no longer swallow us up. And we can get on with things."


Find a paragraph from some published fiction work of a minimum of 100 words and copy it. Then rewrite it by changing nouns, verbs, etc. Rearrange the sentences to see if it makes more sense.

Take a piece of your writing done as far back as possible. Choose something you were not happy with but didn't throw away. Change the name of your main character. Change sixteen verbs. What does this do the piece? Keep on making small changes. If you have passive sentences, make them active. Or if it is very active, put some things into the passive voice. Rework the order of your paragraphs. Play with the piece and see what each set of changes does to the overall work.


Mary Wesley, the English writer who published her first novel at age 70, died at the age of 90. Wesley was passionate about what she did, deliberately sought out friends of all ages, and once said her success was an example of "arrested development." Wesley is a hope to all of us that it is never too late to become successful.


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