Saturday, May 5, 2012

Week 19 - Vocabulary

6 May - 12 May: 'Words, words, mere words...'

"Better than a thousand hollow words, is one that brings peace." Buddha 

Stephen King On Writing credits vocabulary as being one of the most important tools in the writer's toolbox.  Having said that, he does not differentiate between a good vocabulary and a bad one, just that a writer needs to choose and use words effectively to tell the story.  More often than not, this is achieved through simple words in preference to pretentious embellishments of language.

In The Art of Fiction, John Gardner provides more specific advice on vocabulary: avoid words that sound impressive but that everyone else is using, for example, serendipity, ubiquitous, ambiance and milieu.  Instead, he suggests using common words that are not used often and that sound interesting, for example, galumph, quagmire, distraught and remiss.

Roy Peter Clark similarly suggests choosing words the 'average writer avoids but the average reader understands', and that a writer should experiment with language, in serious as well as light-hearted pieces.

Both Gardner and Clark advocate using esoteric terms when the story calls for it, and to use them with authority (but not to the point of overwhelming the reader with jargon).  The writer, therefore, should pay attention to architectural terms for when she is describing buildings, botanical terms for garden settings, and nautical terms for that seafaring adventure.

In addition, Gardner encourages the use of foreign words.  Strunk and White (The Elements of Style), however, advise caution when borrowing from foreign languages, lest the reader become confused and distracted (by the author's inclination to show off perhaps?).

Words are so important - they are the building blocks of every story after all - that I will visit this topic again during June, with a more concise discussion on how language can set tone, control pace and create suspense.  In the meantime, the exercises below are intended to help the writer look for and experiment with new and interesting words.

Exercise 37. Flip through a dictionary and choose six interesting words that are vaguely or not familiar to you.  Now write a short passage that incorporates these words (after reading the definitions, of course).

Exercise 38. Open a thesaurus at a random page. Choose a word and write a story containing every synonym listed for that word (or if you don’t have access to a thesaurus, choose a simple word and use all the synonyms you can think of).

Week 20 will explore the other building block of writing: Punctuation.  I will briefly look at the concept, and then consider less-common examples (that tend to trip me up in my own writing).

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