What if you owned a factory that manufactures flashlights? How happy would you be if you came in one day and saw your team of employees playing darts, sleeping, and snarfing down Twinkies amid a pile of idle flashlight parts? I’ll wager you’d be a bit upset about all those wasted resources.
Consider this: as writers, we employ words. We harness their power and send them out to do a job. So, just like any productive employer, we must choose our operatives effectively and manage them well. In this article, we’ll take a look at some of the ways words can fail and how to avoid that.
Words Are Powerful
Throughout history, there have been countless examples of the power wielded by words. From scripture, to Plato’s Republic, to diplomats who parried with words to prevent resorting to the sword. (Notice the anagram!)
Words can, and should, carry great significance.
In my story, The Sodden Spectators, my main character is a crime novelist who solves the mystery by catching the nuance in a single word. As writers, we may be more aware of the power in words than your average Joe, which puts us in a position to use them to our advantage.
The Wonderful World of Words
Words are multi-talented and can perform a wide range of functions. The potency in a word can come from its meaning, context, tone, innuendo, shape, sound, length, position in cultural climate, etymology, connotation, and more.
Words can act as triggers, informants, catalysts, carriers, clarifiers, distractors, and a host of other functions. When choosing your words, it helps to be aware of the purpose you want them to serve.
Some words stand alone, like a single-word title or logo, and must convey meaning on their own merit. But most words we use are part of a team, placed in context with other words to produce a desired effect. It’s important to make sure your team of words works well together, each doing its share so they don’t goof off (like your loafing flashlight makers) or accomplish something other than what you intended.
Don’t Reveal the Man Behind the Curtain
As writers, sometimes our words flow out as a thing of beauty, seeming to shine. More often, though, they require careful thought and attention to craft. We trim and reassemble, exchanging one word for another until we get the effect we’re going for—an arrangement of words that will cast a spell on our reader.
In doing so, it’s critical that we don’t reveal the man behind the curtain. In a story, if readers see us pushing buttons and pulling strings, the words won’t work. In presenting our story to a reader, we are creating a reality that isn’t real, but that transports our reader into the world of our story. As long as our workers (words) are doing their job.
And it’s got to happen immediately, within the first paragraphs, or we risk losing the reader or allowing them a disillusioning look behind the curtain.
5 Ways Words Trip Up on the Job
This is an open-ended list, because I can’t put a limit on the ways our words can fail. But take heart—here are a few of the most common trip hazards.
If you send in too many words to accomplish your purpose, you force readers through an obstacle course to get to your point. They’re sure to notice this and see it for what it is.
How to fix it: Use economy in word choice. Make it easy for your reader to get where you want them to go.
Learn more: Want to Be a Better Writer? Cut These 7 Words
2. Ill-chosen vocabulary
If your readers have to pull up their dictionary to figure out what you wrote, they’ve stepped outside your story and may not step back in. Besides, just because you know a word doesn’t mean that your farmer in the Middle Ages knows it too.
How to fix it: Keep your target audience in mind and use language appropriate to that market.
3. Point of view shifts mid-scene
Don’t do this. Changing POV too quickly will confuse the reader. Plus, it’ll dissipate all the tension in a scene—if we know what everyone’s thinking and feeling at all times, there are no places where we’ll have to wonder what someone’s feeling or what they might do.
How to fix it: When changing from one POV to another, make sure you cue the reader by starting a new chapter or at least inserting a scene break. And be sure to ground the reader in your new character’s head right away, using tags and pertinent details.
4. Punctuation errors
Poor punctuation is a surefire way to pull back the curtain on the nuts and bolts of your writer’s machinery because that machinery is malfunctioning, making funny noises, and causing your reader to lose confidence in your abilities as a storyteller.
How to fix it: Proofread your writing carefully to catch any lingering mistakes. Consider running it through a grammar checker, too. Our favorite is ProWritingAid.
In short, anything that pulls your reader out of the story—an ostentatious word that calls attention to your writing process, unnecessary exposition, boring parts, and so on.
How to fix it: It can be hard to catch these parts on your own, but try reading your work out loud to approach your writing in a fresh way and hear things you never noticed before. Then, share your writing in a writing workshop to get feedback about where other people are distracted in your story. Our favorite is The Write Practice Pro.
Walk the Path of the Wise Wordsmith
If you can weave a compelling story, readers will forgive some mechanical failure, but beware—don’t push your luck. Learn your craft. Use your words wisely and remember that you’re sending those little guys out to serve a reader.
Some teams make flashlights and other useful items, but you send your workers forth to transport readers into a whole new world. It’s a pursuit worth doing well, so put your words to work.
Can you think of a time when a story used the exact right word—or the exact wrong one? Tell us about it in the comments.
Let’s play a game! As a lover of words, it should come as no surprise that I also love word games. One I really enjoy is called “Codenames.” There’s more to it, but essentially, the idea is to draw associations between two or more words on the 5×5 grid and give a single-word clue to your partner with the hopes they’ll guess the correct words. For example, if three of the words I’m supposed to get my partner to choose were “dinosaur,” “hobgoblins,” and “mammoth,” I might use the single-word clue, “nonexistent.”
I’ll lay out a 5×5 grid of words, and you think of a single-word clue that associates at least two of the words. Then write a paragraph or more using those words in a scene with a purpose, such as creating tension, making your reader laugh, conveying information in an interesting way, establishing atmosphere, etc.
Take fifteen minutes to choose your words and write your scene. When you are finished writing, post your work in the comments and let readers know about your purpose so they can give feedback on whether your words accomplished their mission. And be sure to give input for your fellow readers!
Here’s the grid:
FIRE CANDY CAT POLISH CLOUD
BUTTER FREEDOM FAIRYTALE ZEBRA HIP
LAMP NEWSPAPER VITAMINS OCEAN BOARD
SINK ICE CREAM RUNAWAY MAGNET TRUCK
PLATYPUS CARD SPAGHETTI MASK TREE