Writing well: What’s a good word?

How do we best go about finding and choosing the perfect words to express what is in our mind and in our heart?

Writing is a joy. Writing well takes application. Writing better is an eternal aspiration. Written or spoken, the word is perhaps the purest and certainly the swiftest way to conjure a world, to convey an idea, to share wisdom.

Writing offers endless possibility. Only music can rival writing for the potential to convey what is in your mind and in your heart. But the gift of being able to express oneself through music is much less prevalent in this world than the gift of writing.

Words can possess a kind of music. This past week I came to the end of The Magician, Colm Tóibín’s masterful novel about the life of German novelist Thomas Mann. I could not recommend this book more highly. Throughout, Tóibín’s words sing with a subtle, patient and beautiful music, always conveying so much more than first appearances might suggest.

There is a quite lovely passage in The Magician about how music and language differ. Thomas Mann reflects on his novel Doctor Faustus, partly inspired by the composer Arnold Schoenberg – now an old man, just as Mann himself is:

“How curious it was that across this American city lived the man who, when he was young, composed this lush music! Some of those early yearnings must still be with him, and he must feel sorrow that such tender expression was no longer possible. Some of the same emotions that the music evoked had, Thomas hoped, been captured in his novel, but words were not notes and sentences not chords.”

Words are not notes and sentences not chords. But a perfectly chosen run of words can sing with a beautiful and unparalleled music all its own.

How do we best go about finding and choosing the perfect words to express what is in our mind and in our heart? In this post, I want to share some favourite words I’ve found over the years, on ways to help find the perfect words.

Never use stilts

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The more things change, the more they, etc. Here are nine superb writing tips from an anonymous author in 1857*. Regard:

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For a set of suggestions of more than 160 years’ vintage, they are fresh as paint today. To wit:

“Be brief. This is the age of telegraphs and stenography.”

For telegraphs and stenography, read texts and tweets. But could the 1857 author or authors ever have guessed that after the text and the tweet, the next stage in the “evolution” of language could be a return to hieroglyphics with the emoji?

For anyone curious not only about writing, but writing well, I’d recommend giving these nine somethings for writers a moment of your time. I particularly like the latter half of point 8:

“Never use stilts when legs will do as well.”

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The suggestion to review what you’ve written and “strike out nine-tenths of the adjectives” is inspired. Although, as Homer Simpson has taught us, there is never shame in turning to the animal kingdom for adjectival inspiration.

Don’t waste people’s time

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I’ve blogged before about the freshness and magic of Moby’s memoir, Porcelain, still one of the best music-related books I’ve read. His writing in this first autobiographical volume is beautifully simple yet remarkably vivid, evoking time, place and wonder with ease. I would, however, counsel you to read Porcelain only, and to avoid the second volume Then It All Fell Apart, which for me lacks all of the charm and magic of the first. On top of that, Moby somehow managed to cancel himself through some of the contents of that book, and his interviews around the time of its release.

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Moby’s interview with Bret Easton Ellis from the time of Porcelain provides insight on how this book came to be, along with some good advice on writing. On landing a book deal, Moby planned to go down the classic “autobiography” route of employing a ghostwriter. But someone at his publishing house convinced him that – given that Moby is distantly related to Moby-Dick** author Herman Melville (Hence the name “Moby”) – it would be “an egregious hereditary affront to not try and write your own book.”

Moby explains how he set himself specific goals in approaching the writing of is memoir:

“I had no idea if I was going to write anything interesting or relevant, but at the very least I knew I could aspire to do two things. To be as honest as I possibly could. And to make each chapter something that would hopefully hold up as a barroom anecdote. […] I wanted to write something that was generous.”

Generosity towards the reader is what sets great writing apart. This should be the aim of all writers in every word they pen.

Moby shares his primary influence on Porcelain: The Journals of John Cheever, which Easton Ellis describes as an unflichingly honest “heroin book.” Moby explains how Cheever inspired him:

“If this lion of letters can be so honest, at the very least I can aspire to be honest. And then I just thought, you know, if you write a book, you don’t want to waste people’s time. So, I thought I don’t know if I ’m going to write a good book. But at least let me write something honest, that in places might be entertaining, that might represent a bygone era that actually didn’t happen that long ago, but economically, socially, demographically represents a New York that is long gone.”

In that paragraph is the key to writing well:

“You don’t want to waste people’s time.”

Our language, Tiger, our language…

A Bit of Fry and Laurie (especially the second series, which I taped on its first showing in 1990 and rewatched countless times) must be one of the biggest influences on my own approach to language and to writing.

Language is inexhaustible. Writing offers endless possibility. This is captured most brilliantly in these words from the following wee bit of Fry and Laurie:***

“Our language, Tiger, our language, hundreds of thousands of available words, frillions of possible legitimate new ideas, so that I can say this sentence and be confident it has never been uttered before in the history of human communication: ‘Hold the newsreader’s nose squarely, waiter, or friendly milk will countermand my trousers.’”

When writing, it’s always good to pose Homer’s question: “What’s a good word?” You could do worse than to use words like “countermand” and “friendly milk.” But there are also so many others, so many frillions, from which to choose.

Always seek the perfect words with which to convey what is in your mind and in your heart.

Be generous.

FOOTNOTES

* Via a tweet from Anna Pallai (aka @Mono80), who in turn credits something called crumblingpages, which I don’t seem to have had much luck finding. Can anyone assist?

** The title Moby-Dick, alongside Spider-Man and Beavis and Butt-head, has one of the most forgotten hyphens in popular culture.

*** Gentle reader, I must confess that I referred to this same bit of A Bit of Fry and Laurie a few posts back (in a footnote to Focus). I hope that I can be forgiven for citing it one further time here. Soupy twist!

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