Thursday, December 03, 2015

Word down, not up

Yesterday, on Facebook, I shared this opinion piece from Slate urging teachers not to ban the word “said” in writing exercises. I agreed, because one of the first things I learned as a reporter is that “said” is a valuable word — precisely because it’s boring. It’s mechanical, a mental pause. Even in the most flowery prose, you always need those mental pauses. Good writing has a rhythm to it that’s unconscious, but is glaring when it’s absent. And it’s most conspicuously absent when writers plant flowers in the mechanics.

Today, I came upon what was possibly the catalyst for that article, the Wall Street Journal’s ‘Use More Expressive Words!’ Teachers Bark, Beseech, Implore. In it, teachers talk about having banned the use of certain utilitarian words (such as “said”) in assignments. To hammer home the point, the article’s author uses synonyms for “said” in every attribution. Whether or not he intends to, he illustrates just how annoying that is.

I know a few things about writing — and one of those things is that the thesaurus is entirely too accessible in America. The crutch with a cover, as I’ve been calling it since I started that sentence, has far more influence than it should. I’m convinced that every thesaurus features made-up synonyms, just to out the people who rely on them. At least, that’s the impression that I get whenever I’m reading something and come upon a big word that has no business in a place like this.

Not that the teachers’ intent is bad. Like Robin Williams in Dead Poets Society, I favor writers punching up their words, playing with structure and knowing when to break the rules. I revel in such things. Banality sucks.

But all of that is part of the creative process; being forced to do it only leads to forced writing. The best I can say about such exercises is that they get students thinking and can help them down the road. But at worst, they favor attempts to impress with vocabulary over being coherent, and for many adults, that itch never goes away.

I hate when people use big words to sound intelligent. If they’re trying to look smarter, it’s blatant. If they are that smart and are using those words for their own sake, that’s pompous. But even both of those are preferable to those who think even the articles, conjunctions and attributions of a sentence must be fancy. It's like running a Rolls-Royce on champagne — theoretically, it might be possible, but you're just showing off to an unimpressed crowd.

In my experience, the only way someone can become a better writer is to practice. And read. Someone who is truly interested in the craft is going to naturally explore words and turns of phrase, and exercise creative rule-breaking (such as, say, using an occasional big word for effect). You can perhaps introduce these as writing exercises, but they won’t make anyone better if they aren’t already determined to be better. No one ever got to be a solid writer by thumping the thesaurus.

Some say I’m a decent writer. That’s for others to judge. But I’ve never been more confident in my abilities than I am right now. You could argue that, by going through all the dumb exercises and word substitutions and flower-planting, I evolved into this. But really, I think it comes more from sheer persistence in the grind; never being afraid to try things both bold and average; and (perhaps most importantly) seeing in others’ works exactly what I don’t want to see.

When it comes to writing style, my personal favorite is coherence.

I think that’s all there is to be said for now.

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