Playing with Precision in Writing

Okay.  Writer to writer.

How specific are you in your descriptions and dialog?

And why should you care to expand your vocabulary for that precision?  There is no English teacher hovering over your work any more.  You can substitute wishy-washy language if the right word doesn’t come to mind.  And, if you’re truly stuck, there’s always the good ol’ Thesaurus, right?

So much of commercial fiction is becoming a trudge through nebulous verbiage that only approaches giving you, as a reader, a vision, but doesn’t elevate the spirit.  Here’s what I mean:

Charles Dickens Treasury of World Masterpieces

Read, read, read!

“It was while I acted in “The Frozen Deep” that I hit on the idea for this story, A Tale Of Two Cities.”

That’s how I might have written the introduction to that great novel by Charles Dickens.  You as the reader know who, what, and where I was when I came up with the idea.  Nothing particularly wrong with that, but rather blasé.  Now, let’s look at how a master would say the same thing:

“When I was acting, with my children and friends, in Mr. Wilke Collins’s drama of The Frozen Deep, I first conceived the main idea of this story.  A strong desire was upon me then, to embody it in my own person; and I traced out in my fancy, the state of mind of which it would necessitate the presentation to an observant spectator, with particular care and interest.” — Charles Dickens.

At first this seems a bit over the top, but if you look at the word choices Mr. Dickens made, you can’t help but be drawn into what amounts to a miniature story in one short paragraph. We know so much more with the specific details he chose, than the “just the facts” kind of writing people do for commercial fiction today.

“I first conceived” is so much more specific than “I hit on the idea.”  The former expression empowers the tale teller with the idea that he came up with this concept in a creative manner, while the latter makes it seem like the tale teller simply got lucky.

“In Mr. Wilke Collins’s drama” lets the reader know so much more than “while I acted in The Frozen Deep.”  First, we know who the author of the play is, and then that it is a drama and not a comedy or “feel good” play.

So how, as authors do we become more specific, more polished, more artistic in our own efforts?  Here are a few ideas I’m working with:

  • READ – That’s right, good old-fashioned open the book kind of thing.  Remember when you first opened up Harry Potter?  How many pages in were you when it first hit that you weren’t at Hogwarts, but actually reading a book? Some of the classical writers are like that too.  Now that you’re not in school any more, why not revisit some of those books you trudged through just to earn that “A” you needed?  I personally never read enough, but this is the best way not only to grow your vocabulary, but to get a feel for putting expressions and sentences together with more precision and vision.
  • BAN PLACEHOLDER WORDS – You know what I mean.  Words like “thing,” “just,” or “stuff.”  It could be fun to spend a timed writing session focused on writing a “bad guy” list of words you will avoid in your next novel.

silver spoon to describe

Describe this 10, 20, 50 times!

  • PLAY WITH DESCRIPTIVE SESSIONS – Take a common object (say a spoon) and put it in front of you. Describe it.  Easy enough.  Now do it again. And again. And again. Keep describing the thing until you’re exhausted.  Don’t re-read descriptions until you’ve written at least ten of these short stories.  Or twenty. Whatever challenges you without frustration.  Pick out the best one and save it in your story bible.  It may come in handy at some point.

Take a common adjective, like “big” or “small” or “smelly.” While you’re sitting on a plane or waiting for the dentist, write that word at the top of a sheet of paper.  Now, in the time you’re playing your appointment waiting game, come up with as many alternatives as possible. Your brain can use the exercise and your writing may become more precise.

Now, please tell me, what sort of exercises and games do you play to expand your own vocabulary and hone the precision of your writing?

Have a creative day.


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