The turn of phrase. An eloquent description. Sarcasm, puns, and rhetoric. Words are the color of our communication. They’re what we notice first when talking, allowing body language and situational awareness to seep easily into our subconscious. They’re picked apart, debated, and slung like weapons.
In other words, they’re powerful.
As an author, I’ve become much more aware of my word choice over time. I’m amused at the difference between how I “speak” in text as compared to when I actually use my vocal chords. Chatting online or on social media has a completely different language than the prose in a novel. I’m not saying it should, I’m saying it does. I cringe at the idea of posting on facebook using the same phraseology I’d use to start a chapter.
There’s a time and a place for words, a proper setting, and even a feeling. The things we don’t say are just as important as those we do. As a Gen Xer, I can remember a time before texting, before social media, and even before the internet. My formative years were made talking to people across the world using the written word. As typed communication became more and more common, a phrase became popular. It goes something like this: “It’s hard to tell tone with text.”
Back in the ’90s, we used that as an excuse to explain away a written miscommunication, but I don’t agree with it. Long before we had the ability to smack haphazardly at a keyboard to rant in 140 characters, well before we could just pick up the phone or drive over, people relied upon the written word to communicate. Every time I see an example of old-timey love notes or handwritten diatribes, I fall in love with language all over again.
Sure, the prose was a little “purple” (too flowery) for today’s audience, but the meaning was always clear. Those writers went overboard to make sure their meaning was understood, painting it with bright colors and bold strokes while using nothing but words. Today, we have politicians and celebrities falling back to the “you didn’t get it” idea as a way to explain away mistakes, blaming the character limit or inability to hear emotion from the written word.
It makes me irate every time. My job is to fill words with emotion. To make it clear to my reader how someone feels, even if their words don’t match. I create worlds, destroy them, and do it all with 26 simple letters. I can’t fall back on body language, scents, and sounds to add intrigue – without using words to create them. And to make it even harder, my goal is for my readers to never notice the words at all.
With nothing but those letters, I get to bring an image to life, allowing it to suffuse the reader’s mind so they can lose themselves. The words I chose must incite, entwine, and contain just the right emotions. Each and every one must be heavy with meaning, chosen for the subtle connotation – or lack of it – and sewn together seamlessly without any jarring stops or starts. I must bleed feeling from each and every one.
So when people try to explain something away as just being a problem with text, I can’t help but roll my eyes. So many people aren’t aware of those little things that show what the other is really thinking. Things like avoiding contractions when they’re angry or selecting single syllable words for emphasis. The power of a word doesn’t come from its definition, it comes from its use: why someone chose it over another with a similar meaning. We’ve all heard the example of cheap vs. inexpensive, but other things matter just as much, like sentence structure and repetition of words.
I often get annoyed. I see paragraphs that have the same problem. I notice all the sentences feel the same. It pulls me right out of the flow. The rhythm is too jarring. (See what I did there?)
Noun, verb, ending. Noun, verb, ending. No introductory phrases to smooth the flow. No complex verbs or compound sentences to pull the ideas together. In the end, the language feels elementary and stilted. It comes across as hesitant or grumpy rather than easily shifting from the page to the mind as something bigger.
When we start writing our first novel, we read how every word must matter, how adverbs and adjectives should be avoided to keep it clean, and how we must show and not tell. I’ve never seen anyone advocate adding a few extra words to build voice or maintain flow – but I’m going to. Yes, I agree with much of the advice, but rules are meant to be broken. Sometimes, putting in that extraneous little sentence leader (like “Sometimes”) can soften the blow, ease the transition into the idea, or just keep the thoughts feeling smooth.
For me, when I’m writing a book, I imagine the character telling the story to someone else. I think of how they’d talk years after the events of the novel, and then I let my imaginary friend just go. Different points of view get different language styles. The characters end up with verbal ticks that easily identify them. The descriptions come alive because of the power they have in my (admittedly warped) mind.
The goal isn’t just to share, but to paint with these words. To chose the right ones to make the images tangible in the reader’s mind. To breathe in life and add color. I am an artist, and words are my paint, made up of nothing more than 26 different pigments. My goal is to one day master my media.