“I emerged from the womb hollering for a pencil sharpener…I’m still working every day on writing simply.”
What more energizing and enlivening a way to spend an evening than rhapsodizing about words in all their glory with the help and inspiration of a devoted wordsmith and editor? That’s what I had the pleasure of doing at a Write Group workshop led by Toby Stein,* the author of five books, a longtime editor, and a poetry enthusiast. Toby began her spirited session by reading “Sea-Sand and Sorrow” by Christina Rossetti:
What are heavy? sea-sand and sorrow:
What are brief? to-day and to-morrow:
What are fail: Spring blossoms and youth:
What are deep? the ocean and truth.
This poem has no adjectives or adverbs, Toby noted, yet it is freighted with feeling. In her view, it embodies all the qualities of strong writing: “It’s specific, accessible, and clear.” It also possesses a less tangible ingredient, Toby added — “it’s wonderful.” A fierce advocate of direct, unfussy language, she cited one of Mark Twain’s rules of writing: “use the right word everywhere — not its second cousin.” More Toby tips:
• Hone your words with precision and patience — it’s easy to be trite and hackneyed.
• Choose nouns and verbs that communicate exactly what you want to say and nothing more. Writers and aspiring writers sweat over what adjective or adverb to use; our work is better served if we put that energy into picking the best verb for the job at hand.
• Once you have a strong noun and verb, let them stand on their own: resist the impulse to search for clever or unusual adjectives to dress them up. If you use a precise verb, you don’t have to “fancify” it with adjectives.
• Choose verbs that are “specific, accurate, and strong” — verbs like “walk, laugh, and cry” are too unspecific to really engage or affect your readers.
• To increase accessibility, strive to keep your words pithy, preferably 1 or 2 syllables.
• “Make friends with two delete buttons: the one on your computer and the one in your head.” Make it a point to delete a phrase or word that pops into your head if isn’t a satisfying choice. Push yourself to find a better one: Don’t settle for second-rate.
• If you’ve thought of a telling word to describe someone or something, don’t dilute its power by adding two others — no reinforcement is needed.
• Beware of larding your language: “So much that we write is extraneous — it doesn’t add meaning or feeling or purpose.”
Wonderful advice well worth applying from a seasoned pro. Bravo, Toby, write on!
* For more writing advice from Toby, see the post, “Details Deliver.”