Thursday, May 10, 2012

Wordsmith at Work: One Word

I have one more moment to pull from the critique of my friend Micosil's short story I blogged about last week, a brief exchange that I thought was rather compelling. We were discussing the italicized word in this sentence:

"The mountain of a man held a black double-bladed axe in his other hand, the great weight seeming not to trouble him in the least."

Here's the mini-conversation for you:

Wordsmith: I wouldn't say black in the first paragraph. It's uneccesary for the visual at that exact moment,
you mention it later, and it's usually good to cut out words where possible.
Micosil: Oh come on, that's one word!
Wordsmith: Yep.
Wordsmith: One word matters.
Micosil: Which is why I did change it.

Although sometimes I nitpick too much and focus on the details when the bigger picture is more important, I really liked that discussion. I found myself thinking about it days after we had finished discussing the short story, and I really believe that what I said was true.

One word matters.

Would Charles Dicken's famous novel still have been as memorable if it begun "It was the best of times, it was the most unsatisfactory of times"? (I am convinced that most people have never read more from that book than that single line.)

Consider "How use doth breed a habit in a man." If William Shakespeare had said "create" or "emphasize" instead of "breed," the connotations and undertones would have been completely different. Breeding is a lesser term, a mortal and an animal one, and the use of it here indicates contempt for habitual responses.

Or, one of my personal favorite words, "Aslan." Before C. S. Lewis, it meant nothing, but he gave that word power and beauty and magic. Perhaps it could have been done with another name, but the sound of that name is, to me, as appealing as what C. S. Lewis did with it.

There are many thousands of examples, and I'm sure you can think of more on your own. But instead of searching the greats and trying to analyze their word choice, turn this insight inward.

It's my instinct to cut and prune when I edit, to look for ways to make my story tighter, more concise. My storytelling reflects the story- told by tense, high-strung warriors who don't have time for detours and mistakes.

Other stories, like Lord of the Rings, rely on their lengthy, wordy prose to draw the reader into the story and paint the full image that Tolkien envisioned. The long descriptions were never my favorite, but they were what helped Tolkien to tell the story best.

What words you use (and how many of them) will vary greatly from writer to writer. When doing final edits of your book, it's important to take the time to realize that every word matters. Maybe you're writing a 700-page epic, or a slim, intellectual volume that is more philosophy than story.

Regardless of the story you choose to tell, the words you choose matter. What words have you chosen to tell your stories? Do you have a "perfect line" or two you'd like to share?

Wordsmith at Work: I'm almost positive I'm working.


  1. I'm rather fond of "The End" as my perfect line. LOL After working months/years on a book there are no sweeter words! Of course, they're the first ones deleted when the revisions begin. (Gotta watch the word count.)

    Good post.

    1. "The End" does sound pretty sweet. I haven't written it yet, but I plan to. =D

      Thanks. <3

  2. I'm a poet as much as I am a novelist, so I've always firmly believed that every word must be deliberate. I think carefully about what I'm writing before I even let it onto the page. Like you said, one word matters. Think how much adding a negative to a statement can be... it changes the meaning completely.

    Thanks for sharing. :)

    1. Thanks, I'm glad to hear you agree. Poets tend to grasp the import of one word better than novelists, I feel. Overall, at least. Poets tend not to work in the thousands, after all. :D