Tuesday, February 27, 2007

The Allure of Words

Writers, when using description, often forget that the purpose is to create a mental picture for the reader and not to have words overwhelm that function. Often words overwhelm this function as the writer uses it to show their love of words for their own sake.

Description should not be secondary to word choice; it should serve its primary reason: to create a mental picture. Only when it creates the desired mental picture is it effective.

Some writers use description to show their erudition, their knowledge of words, their vocabulary, and ability. When words intrude upon this function, then they tend to decorate rather than illuminate. Thus a writer must be ever vigilant that one does not befuddle the reader with an obtuse choice of words. The old adage, Keep It Simple Stupid, is worthwhile to consider. All the best writers adhere to that rule so their descriptions are clear, exact, and effective.

Some writers feel that description must overwhelm the senses when in reality they should use them to draw the reader into the scene, the atmosphere, and the mood that the writer is trying to create. It must be done subtly, cunningly, and unobtrusively, making sure that the words do not draw undue attention to passage.

Words should not be used to decorate.

Monday, February 26, 2007

Agile Alliterations

Many writers like to show off their erudition with devices that confuse rather than enlighten. These writers use alliterations and foreign words, phrases, or expressions when good English equivalents are available.

Avoid the use of fancy alliterations. The writer may think that they sound learned when they do nothing more than bewilder the reader. That does not mean that all alliterations should be avoided; only those meant to dazzle and amaze the reader with the writer’s ingenuity. Obviously an apt alliteration can add pizzazz to a composition, but it must be used judiciously, not to overwhelm the reader.

Another fault is the use of foreign words or phrases that do nothing to enhance the writing but make it difficult for the reader to get at the crux of the writer’s meaning. Sometimes the English language has no counterpart; then such use is acceptable if it is obvious that the reader will understand the writer’s intent. Usually, though, the English language does have a comparable word, phrase, or expression and that is what should be used.

Avoid any language that does not serve the purpose of clear, precise, and concise communication. As well, it should place the writer in the background rather than draw attention to his or her persona. If you are writing for the general public, keep it unpretentious and straightforward without complex sentence structure and literary vocabulary as well as decorative alliteration.

Friday, February 23, 2007

Avoid Jargon

Words are the writer’s main tool, but they must be used with care and circumspection. Words should not be used to impress in a style that is stinted, obtuse, and academic. Pedantic writing is boring and unimaginative, lacking in imagination and fancy and usually means an unwise choice of words. Choose the simple, mundane word over the ambiguous, exotic to be understood and explicit.

The writer must remember that words are used for communication, be it narrative, descriptive, argumentative, or whimsical. Thus the content—the meaning, the message—is primary and must always be kept in mind when writing.

Information and meaning must take precedence over word choice. As E.B. White writes in The Elements of Style, use definite, specific, concrete language; this, of course, means using precise, simple words rather than obscure, vague words that require the reader to run to the dictionary to find out what the author had in mind. Clowning with words, and the overuse of jargon is not the way to improve one’s style.

Of course, this does not mean that flights of imagination should be avoided. Apt figures of speech—metaphors, similes particularly—can increase exactness as well as adding vividness to the writing. They are an effective way to make meaning concrete.

This kind of whimsy or fancy can elevate an article, an essay, a short story, or a novel to masterpiece status.

Friday, February 16, 2007

Choosing Words

The words that writers choose are always important because they involve syntax, style, and comprehension, and the latter is the most important. The others will follow if the author keeps that in mind. This means that writers should stick to words they know.

If writers has to use a dictionary or a thesaurus, that means that they do not know the word. They have not experienced its denotations and particularly its connotations. For a true understanding of a word it must be a part of the active as well as the passive vocabulary. One knows many more words than are used in speech, and these passive words are as important as the active ones. These are the words to use.

This does not mean that you should never use the dictionary or the thesaurus, but it does mean that they should be used to check, to clarify, and to refine the composition. If any doubt exists of the words appropriateness, it should not be used. The insight will not be there.

A study of the great writers will make it apparent that they knew and understood the words they used. They considered carefully the words, and they studied words until they became a part of their vocabulary, both passive and active. Of course, this means that the writer is always studying words, always interested in words, always using new words, maybe even creating some.

Nevertheless, the old adage “Keep It Simple Stupid” is an important one for writers when it comes to choosing words.



Thursday, February 15, 2007

Wearing Another's Shoes

A writer should never try to imitate another’s style because it will not work. Since each writer is a unique individual that includes how he or she puts words together to express ideas that are exclusive to them. That is his or her distinctive way of expression. This individuality comes from the writer’s background, education, culture, and lifestyle. All of these influence the way in which a person articulates.

It is essential and imperative that each writer finds and develops his or her manner of expression, acquires his or her own style. This is what gives the writing originality.

This does not mean that the writer should ignore grammar, spelling, or word choice. Although language is continually evolving and acceptable customs change, it is important to adhere to the basics if one is to be understood and comprehended. How one puts the words together is what constitutes style.

It is this distinctiveness that must be developed, not by imitation, but by practice. The more one writes without thought of simulation, the more one’s own style matures and becomes recognizable and distinctive, his or her own.

To develop one’s own style, one should read widely, but without the intention to ape or mimic any other writer’s manner. Of course, as important is writing; it must be practiced on a continual basis, every day, often. From this eclectic source will come the writer’s own unique style that will fit better than any duplication of another’s method.

Wednesday, February 14, 2007

Finding the Right Word

Finding the right word to express an idea or an emotion has always been the writer’s nemesis. Seldom does the word chosen seem right.

To chose the right word the writer must be convince of his or her own feelings. Unless the writer is sure of how he or she is convinced of an idea, or how he or she understands an emotion it is impossible to choose the exact word to express that idea or that sensation.

It follows that the writer’s sentiment about the idea or feeling must be intense and sincere. If they are then the words to express it genuinely and honest will come. But this does not mean that they do not require revision and circumspection. Each word must be thought of carefully and explored for naturalness.

This search delves into the writer’s experience, vocabulary, and then the thesaurus, but this is to recall words that have been experienced and are part of the active vocabulary. Words that are part of the passive or known vocabulary should not be used, as they do not have the familiarity of the active vocabulary.

The dictionary should not be used to find the right word unless it is used to augment the knowledge that the writer already has about the word. Just as the dictionary should not be used to dig up the right word, the thesaurus should only be used to recall the right word that is a part of the active vocabulary.

The right word must always be experienced before it should be used.

Tuesday, February 13, 2007


The style is the author and results from his or her chose of words. Good style results from a wise chose of words while poor style occurs from poor word choice.

Since words are the language, the words used by the writer are important; they decide the author’s style that should be to convey ideas and feelings in the best way possible. Strunk and White condense it down to two rules: 1. Use definite, specific, and concert words. 2. Omit needless words.

What are definite, specific, and concrete words? Definite means explicit, open, and plain. In other words, the simple, ordinary word, the word that most people use every day should be used. Specific means exact, and what can be more exact than the word in common usage that has been tested in time. Concrete means real, and what can be more real that words that are used every day by millions of people.

Good style omits the needless words. It condenses writing to its most basic structure making it vigorous and concise. Avoid many common expressions such as ‘the reason why is that’ that can be reduced to one word ‘because.’

Thus good style requires that the writer consider carefully and revise wisely the words chosen. The way the words are put together is the author’s style.

Monday, February 12, 2007


The inadequacy of words becomes most apparent when the writer tries to express ideas and feelings that are deep and thoughtful, that touch the most intense human emotions and profound values.

At the time, words to express exactly what the author wants to convey become difficult to choose because the denotations and connotations of the words interferes with the feelings or ideas to be described, explained, or illustrated.

That is when words lack the intensity, the power, and the rigor that the author wishes to convey. That is when the writer struggles to find the right words, the precise words, and the exact words and yet cannot find them because that is the inadequacy of vocabulary.

Since the correct word cannot be found, often the author resorts to the obscure, the ambiguous, and the little know, the academic, or scholarly word to give the appearance of erudition, but which, in effect, does just the opposite. It clouds the meaning to be conveyed rather than clarify it.

Simplicity is the key. Simple word tend to be more exact, more understood, and with greater common denotations and connotations. Although inadequate, they are superior to the pretentious, elaborate, the coy and the cute as Strunk and White tell us.

Friday, February 09, 2007

Hopelessly Inadequate

As everyone knows, words are the main means of expression. For a writer they are his or her stock in trade, but they are hopelessly inadequate for the job expected of them. Why?

First, words have denotations that continually change due to the way people use them. Since language is always evolving with the progress of culture, new meanings are continually added to old words. As well, new words are coined to fit the changes in technology, in location, and in lifestyle.

Second, words convey different meanings to persons because their experience is exclusive depending upon their encounter with each word. These connotations are emotional responses to the word that can be positive, negative, or neutral although seldom are they neutral. That is why writers and speakers are partial to certain words and have an aversion to others. Writers, like all people, have favorite words and often use them indiscrimately.

As a result, words are hopelessly inadequate to express exactly what the writer is trying to convey; they can never express precisely the idea, the feeling, the view, and even the fact the writer wishes to relay to the reader. So it is very important that the writer choose words carefully and thoughtfully.

Thursday, February 08, 2007

A Blunt Nail

A writer’s main tool is words, but words never express exactly the idea the writer has in mind because words have denotations and connotations. Connotations are what cause the trouble with exact expression as each individual experiences the word relative to acquired knowledge, thus the word has a different mean for each person.

Each reader will interpret what the writer has written due to the fact that his or her life experience is different for the words used. Shakespeare found words so inadequate, he coined his own and added many to the English vocabulary.

For this reason the writer must choose his words with care. Some words are too precise; others are too general. Words that are too exact do not convey the idea any more than do words that are too general. Getting the right word is all important, and that is the reason that most writers revise and edit their word until it almost conveys the idea that they have in mind.

Unfortunately the meanings—the denotation and connotation—change over time. A study of the etymology of almost every word in the English language will reveal this. One example is the word “awful” which at one time meant ‘full of awe'. Now it has almost the opposite meaning ‘ugly, very bad’.

Choosing the right word is most important if the writer is to convey exactly, or exactly as possible, the idea in mind.

Wednesday, February 07, 2007

Drastic Measures

A writer’s worst fear is writer’s block, the time when the mind goes blank whenever the time to write approaches. This can occur whether the writer is a freelancer or for hire writer. With the freelancer, the consequences may not be as grave as for the one whose job is writing and who depends on it for sustenance, but it can be just as traumatic.

Drinking hard liquor will not solve the problem although many writers have used that as a solution. Worrying about it is certainly not the answer, nor is fretting and being miserable. Telling friends and colleagues about your predicament may bring some sympathy, but no resolution. So what is one to do?

The most drastic measure may be to seek another vocation if it is your day job, probably far from the journalism field if you are a member of the press or from the advertising line of work if you are a copywriter. If writing is your avocation, then abandoning it may not be as drastic financial, but it may be just as traumatic, even more so. Thus any activity, other than writing is necessary.

If one is meant to be a writer, the desire will return; the ideas will return; the words will return; and the composition will be accomplished. So writer’s block may be a blessing in disguise. Either you are a writer or you are not, and in any case, writer’s block will be overcome.

Monday, February 05, 2007

Braking Writer's Block

Techniques for breaking writer’s block

Every writer, young or old, amateur or professional, will experience that dreaded of all possibilities—writer’s block— that time when ideas are absent, words will not come, and the writer’s confidence is shaken.

What can the writer do? Here are a few suggestions that might be fitted to each writer’s situation.

1. Writer fast and free—write anything. Even this will not work some time.

2. Write in a journal. Many writers use this to assure that they will have something to say.

3. Talk into a tape recorder and play it back; then write it down.

4. Review old material, a discarded article, or any other manuscript.

5. Switch to an entirely different genre.

6. Do something physical. Take a walk, play a game, do push-ups. Get you mind off writing.

7. Read a new article, a new story, or a new book.

8. Catch up on your bookkeeping.

9. Talk to a writer friend.

10. Work on your website, or build one.

11. Write your great ideas down.

12. Be careful where you stop—stop your daily writing before whatever you are writing is finished.

Not all these techniques will work for you, but one might although you must remember that writing involves hard work and dedication, seldom inspiration.

Keep writing!

Friday, February 02, 2007

Writer's Block

Writer’s block is the bane of most writers

All writers fear the curse of writer’s block—the inability to put thoughts to paper, the failure to compose a sentence that expresses a coherent thought, or the collapse of all mental activity dealing with composition.

Three reasons are the cause. The first is the result of the writer trying to express ideas and opinions that are foreign to the person’s background and traditions. When that occurs, the mind refuses to function.

Another explanation is that the author is trying to write about a topic or subject matter that does not interest him or her; it does not create a curiosity, an inquisitiveness that drives the psyche to explore.

Often it is because the writer has nothing to communicate to the intended reader. If the writer has nothing to impart, then no words can express that lack and as a result no words come.

And finally, the lack of enthusiasm for the topic is the most common reason for the lack of ability to put thoughts to paper or into the computer. If the writer lacks fervor for what he or she is trying to communicate, how can one become excite about the task.

Writer’s block is nothing more that beating one’s brains against a dead end.

Thursday, February 01, 2007

Challenging Stories

A story that doesn’t challenge the writer won’t challenge the reader either.

Every writing whether it is an article, an essay, a short story, or a novel must challenge the author if it is to challenge the reader, and if it does not do this, then it will be ignored and disregarded.

How must it challenge the writer? It must do so on several levels. First the topic must be one that interests the author. If the author writes without fascination for his or her subject, it will quickly become apparent. The second challenge is to write in a style that is appropriate to the subject, and third, the information must be relevant, appropriate, and significant.

If the writing does all this for the author, then it will do as much for the reader. Of course, it is significant that not all writing will do this to all readers; much depends on the reader’s curiosity, attention, and beliefs. Nevertheless, the writing must appeal to enough readers to be acceptable.

That is every writer’s challenge: to excite, to inform, to convince, and to confront the reader with ideas that are stimulating, inspiring, and thought-provoking. If the writer does that he or she is successful.