So, what would you say was the main building block of writing?
That’s right, class. The words.
The way you put them together is of utmost importance, naturally, but ultimately, if you don’t have the vocabulary, all the technique in the world will avail you nothing. (This is one of the main reasons I disliked studying foreign languages in school. I love playing with words, but memorizing lists of them to have enough of a working vocabulary to be able to construct meaningful conversations? Hated that part. But I digress.)
The point of writing, after all, is communication, and if your words aren’t quite right, you’re not going to get your message across. The trick is knowing when and how to use the words you’ve got in your head. If you use too high-falutin’-sounding language, you sound inaccessible and stiff. (Think, for example, of the most boring text book you had to plow through in school.) That’s probably not the way to go–unless putting thousands of school-children to sleep is a goal for you. On the other hand, if you’re too casual, too familiar, too “folksy,” you can come across as if you don’t know what you’re talking about. Or, at least, as if you’re not to be taken seriously.
This is actually a subject I plan on going into in more detail at some point . . . this post is just to get you thinking about it. Because, while you should not pack your writing full of four-syllable, go-get-a-thesaurus kinds of words, you should know as many of them as possible. You never know when such a word will be precisely the word you need.
Besides, here’s the thing that many writing manuals leave out . . . Words are FUN. You may have other reasons to write–you may be writing sales copy, articles for a newspaper, blog entries, letters to friends–there are myriad reasons to pick up a pen or sit at a keyboard. But that doesn’t mean it has to be all laborious, hard work. You might not want to get drunk on your writing, but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t enjoy the satisfaction of tasting it when you find just the right word.
To illustrate . . . and just because the quote is pure fun . . . here’s an excerpt from A Winter’s Tale by Mark Helprin
Though Mrs. Gamely was by all measures prescientific and illiterate, she did know words. Where she got them was anyone’s guess, but she certainly had them…. Mrs. Gamely’s vocabulary was enormous. She knew words no one had ever heard of, and she used words every day that had been mainly dead or sleeping for hundreds of years. Virginia checked them in the Oxford dictionary, and found that (almost without exception) Mrs. Gamely’s usage was flawlessly accurate. For instance, she spoke of certain kinds of dogs as Leviners. She called the areas near Quebec march-lands. She referred to diclesiums, liripoops, rapparees, dagswains, bronstrops, caroteels, opuntias, and soughs. She might describe something as patibulary, fremescent, pharisaic, Roxburghe, or glockamoid, and words like mormal, jeropigia, endosmic, mage, palmerin, thos, vituline, Turonian, galingale, comprodor, nox, gaskin, secotine, ogdoad, and pintuary fled from her lips in Pierian saltarellos. Their dictionary looked like a sow’s ear, because Virginia spent inordinate proportions of her days racing through it, though when Mrs. Gamely was angry a staff of ten could not have kept pace with her, and a dozen linguaphologists would have collapsed from hypercardia.
“Where did you learn all those words, Mother?” Virginia might ask.
Mrs. Gamely would shrug her shoulders. “We were raised with them, I suppose.” She didn’t always speak incomprehensibly, in fact, she sometimes went for months at a time strapped down firmly to a strong and worthy matrix of Anglo-Saxon derivatives. Then, Virginia breathed easy, and the rooster was so happy that had he been a chicken he would have laid three eggs a day. Or was he a chicken? Who knows? The point is, he thought he was a cat.