Knotted Up in Words

by LimebirdCat

Language is so important to writing, that you don’t even realise how important it is.

Do you? I mean, the very fact that we spent our formative years in schools learning to recognise and then put together letters to form sounds and then words is greatly over looked. What a grand and glorious species we are to be able to communicate through writing. Then how great are we, that we share this life-essential skill with our young and they, in turn, share it on.

I’ve eluded to the freedom, expression and sheer ruddy joy of writing before haven’t I? Well, let’s sweep that aside for one moment and look at the words we write.

Writing takes on different forms, depending on what you are writing and to whom.

This is probably something I learnt from A-Level English Language days. I’d back that up by going off to the books as I am want to do, but for this piece I’ll simply give in to the hazy memories accumulated by my 18 year old self. Now, you write in different ways for different things. You write formally in a letter to your electricity supplier. You write differently in a formative assessment for University. You write differently in a status update on Facebook.

When writing a novel though – you enter a realm of writing that I can’t say I have experienced anywhere else for anything else.

I’m formally a poet and a published one too. Don’t get too excited, my work was published in anthologies no doubt long out of print.

Poetry is the ultra analysis of words and offers a sharp contrast to the world of story writing, well in my view anyway.

Each letter of each word and how it is presented and paced is of absolute importance. Poetry is like painting. Each depression of a key on your keyboard to form the word you have selected in your artists mind is akin to the bold but considered sweep of an artist’s horsehair brush on crisp white canvas.

With writing a novel, although wording is a factor, it pours out like a stream. You don’t have to be as neat and tidy with what pours out of you. You can consider whole sentences in this realm of writing, not worry about the intonation too much or the guttural nuances of certain words. With a novel, you cascade with your wordage. It is not a bunch of carefully mixed colours upon your minds pallet, it is a whirl, a sweep, a tumult.

Although that sounds like perhaps an almost careless approach, it is set against the backdrop of poetry. Or at least my experience anyway. I come to story writing, in terms of prose, from the world of poetry, which I consider to be so different.

I now find myself worrying needlessly about whether or not I have provided elevated lexis enough to prove that I am not thick and possess a wide vocabulary.

For writing my present project, I have turned to the dictionary and  – I kid you not – browsed it for words to put in that I seldom, if ever, use. I want to sound ‘clever’ and articulate, despite the fact that the story is told in the first person and the character would not use words like ‘gregarious’ to say she was ‘sociable’. She’d just go ‘it comes to something when your wheelie bin goes out more than you do’. So why isn’t that enough?

How many times have you, whether you want to admit it or not, read a paperback and come across a word you have probably never heard before? When it happens to me, I feel really embarrassed that I do not understand it. I can guess at its meaning in context, but to have my flow of reading stopped dead because I’m ‘too thick’ to know what ‘pugnacity’ is really hits home. I think it comes purely from the fact that I have a degree and therefore people assume that because it was in English and Drama, I am familiar with every single word in the English Language and ergo, I must understand this word. I feel dumb and I know I shouldn’t. I feel like every person who ever had expectations in me and my education suddenly leering down over my shoulder, tutting away in my ear.

I shouldn’t care about language as much as I do but I can’t help it. I feel dumb if I don’t and as though my roots in poetry should somehow help me.

I can’t help but think that I should know more. Not even in terms of research – but that language should just be so natural to me and it isn’t a lot of the time. Well, it’s mastery is not perhaps at the level I would like.

I know it looks weird inserting unnecessarily long, under-used words into my stories at times because the characters wouldn’t say those things. It flies in the face of realism and creative truth. Yet there you have it – my personal insecurities prevailing once more. Who am I going to sound dumb in front of? Most of my stuff is unpublished and I write for my own amusement.

I think the answer lies therein. You are always going to be your own worst enemy, being a self-critic. When I show things to my husband, he hails me as the next blummin’ Shakespeare. I think he’s deluded. He begs to differ.

I suppose it’s about self confidence and having the ability to use language without fear but with pride and élan.

I urge you to do so too. Don’t become tangled in the knots of language and its use. Be thoughtful, be considerate to its use, but do not become its slave like I am being right now.

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13 Comments to “Knotted Up in Words”

  1. Yes, the self-directed permission to experiment is part of the journey.

  2. Ah, I love how you have coined writing as a form of art. This has been an enjoyable read!

  3. Um, what’s elan? I know it means “tree” in Hebrew, but otherwise I’m at a loss (and, unlike you, too lazy to go look at dictionary.com).

    I think you make a good point about being your worst critic.

    As to being Shakespeare, well, as far as my limited reading of his works, he used lots of base humor.

    If you are writing for yourself, use whatever words you’d like. If you are writing something that should have the word “literary” as a descriptor, then you’d better be both flowery AND true to your characters. If you are writing for the masses, probably best to drop words like “supercilious.”

    Here’s the funny thing. I read books all the time that have terms I’m not familiar with. There’s some reference to a part of a gun, or a boat, or some Olde English term for something, etc. Either I learn from the context, or it’s not that important. It makes me wonder if (unless I’m reading some non-fiction on Olde English boats & guns) the authors are either such afficianados that they don’t realize good chunks of the populace won’t know what the heck that THING is, or if they feel as you do, that they have to be all-knowing (omniscient, as it were) about all words ever used in English – even if they were originally NOT English (e.g. ergo).

    The best advice I can give is, “Semper ubi sub-ubi.” (Always where under-where) and don’t I sound smart saying it 🙂

    • I agree 100%, I read terms all the time I don’t understand either. I like to consider the author a show-off, not myself a dummy 🙂 lol

      • LOL!

        Actually, most of the words I know I learned reading. I sorta didn’t DO anything else from about 3rd through 5th grade. So, it CAN be useful 🙂

      • I like that thought a lot. I am a self-deprecator of the first water so never consider the author as being a bit of a show off… but when you think about it, you’re definitely on to something there. I remember beta-ing a piece of writing that was so utterly bogged down in historical information that the story got lost somewhere. The author had been hell-bent on showing off what she’d learnt from her research that the characters became secondary to her need to give us a history lesson. Language can certainly be the same! 😀

  4. Your comment about consulting the dictionary for new words struck something with me. I find dictionaries fascinating. I just go through them, turning the pages, looking for interesting words. Words and writing are wonderful. Great post.

  5. It doesn’t matter how well educated you are – there are always going to be words you don’t know – so no need to feel self-conscious about it. That’s why we have dictionaries and encyclopedias and the whole world-wide internet! The experience of learning in itself is great fun!
    As for making your characters use words that don’t fit their personalities, that IS something you have to watch out for if you want your fiction to ring true. As for using specialized words, you have to be careful about explaining them, because you don’t want to talk down to your reader and assume they are ignorant. Sometimes I will have another character in my story – one who is less well educated – ask, “What’s that mean?” and then you can explain the term without seeming patronizing. However, even that can backfire. I was a fan of “Stargate: SG-1” and I always remember a scene early on where somebody uses the term “electromagnetic radiation” and Daniel Jackson of all people (the most highly educated of the bunch) asks, “What’s that?” Now that not only insulted Daniel’s intelligence, it insulted the audience, because I doubt there are many SF fans who don’t know what EM radiation is.
    And as for your husband’s remark that you’re the next Shakespeare – well, husbands and mothers are the greatest audience in the world, but not necessarily the most objective critics!

  6. Moderation and balance are our friends. Ultimately I seek readability, a worded means of conveyance such that words disappear and the reader lives in the story.

  7. My dad always told me to keep a dictionary on hand when I was reading so I could look up confusing words. I don’t think that makes you dumb, it’s something that plagues us all 😀

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