“People think how a sugar basin has no physiognomy, no soul. But it changes every day.”
“What was any art but a mould in which to imprison for a moment the shining elusive element which is life itself – life hurrying past us and running away, too strong to stop, too sweet to lose.”
“Life hurrying past us” — isn’t that what we are trying to capture in both our fiction and nonfiction? Among the biggest tools in our arsenal: the word choices we make. “It’s my experience that writing is about making choices; good writing is about making good choices,” novelist and editor Toby Stein observed in an inspiring exploration of using specifics to enrich and enliven writing.
A case in point: Suppose you’re describing a character entering a courtroom. You could simply say, “She walked into the courtroom.” But that’s wasted language — and a wasted opportunity — observes Toby. Instead of using “walked” — why not pick a verb that works harder and conveys more to the reader? A few contenders: ambled, bounced, lurched, limped, strolled, sauntered, strutted, sashayed, slithered, stumbled, tiptoed, wandered. You get the idea!
Or, try an exercise that Toby gave and complete the sentence, Her handshake was…. Our little group came up with a cornucopia of specifics: awkward, crushing, hesitant, weak, weary, sweaty, vigorous, flimsy, cool, deceptive, hostile, distant, solid, stolid, sullen, furtive, anxious. Each of these words conveys a different but revealing feeling to a reader. A few of Toby’s tips:
• Adverbs are weak cousins to nouns and verbs. Start out with strong nouns and verbs — and use adverbs sparingly.
• Fiction’s main goal is to create a protagonist that readers can identify with. The more specific your language, the more real your character becomes.
• Write your first draft fast enough to get your whole story out, then shift into revision mode. Revision = focused writing + making choices.
• A novel isn’t a photograph, it’s impressionistic. Each revision gives you the chance to paint a better picture by picking better nouns and verbs. If you’re just adding words without enriching the meaning or the effect, you’re not improving your story, you’re “disimproving” it.
• It’s very important “not to squander specifics:” Numbers, dates, times, and colors all add emotional and descriptive impact. Azure, royal blue, teal — each shade of blue colors your story a little differently, for example.
• 1+1=1/2. If you have two words or phrases, you diminish the impact of both, so choose one. The one that’s simplest is often the best choice. (Wow, this is a great insight — I’m applying it in my YA novel!)
Great advice from a seasoned editor and writer. Thanks, Toby. Write on!