We’re artists. Our medium is words. That’s all we have. We’d better make them count.
Despite having written for thirty years, I didn’t think much about that concept until, at the Dahlonega Literary Festival, I served on a panel of authors discussing “Making the Words Count.” As the other panelists and I tossed around ideas, I was struck by a thought:
Our job as authors is to make the words invisible.
When readers pick up a book, they want to be pulled directly into the story and stay there. They want to lose themselves in the flavor and action, to hear the characters voices in their heads, not look at a bunch of words, however long and/or impressive, on a sheet of paper.
Have you ever been deeply involved in a story and had a word stop you in mid-read? There you sit, torn between trying to decipher the meaning from context and pulling out the trusty, well-thumbed Webster. In either case, you’re out of the story and you may or may not choose to return.
I was recently reading a mystery novel. I was moving fluidly through the book when the author stopped me cold with the word―uh― I can’t remember the word. That’s how impressive it was. That author’s love of words, and possibly his ego, got in the way of the story. I was a lot less enthusiastic (and trusting) when I returned to the book. And no, I didn’t finish it.
When you’re typing your dissertation, it’s okay to sprinkle technical terms and vocabulary around like so much confetti. When you’re writing for the average reader―well, don’t.
Someone recently told me that publishers want novels written at the fifth grade level. I found that slightly insulting, and yet, it makes a certain twisted kind of sense. Our goal is to get published; the publisher’s goal is to sell the greatest number of books to the largest audience possible, which means selling to people at all levels of intellect. So it follows that publishers will buy what will appeal to the greatest number of readers. You (and I) might want to remember that fact when we’re polishing our next manuscript for submission.
Does that mean we should “talk down” to our readers? Of course not. But we’d better keep our writing geared to a broad general audience if we want to sell to someone other than our families and loyal friends.
A few more thoughts on words:
Paint a picture with your words. Close your eyes and see the scene before you. Feel the breeze and smell the tang of pine or the sweet fragrance of freshly cut grass; see the dew frosting a manicured lawn―or whatever. Then put that on paper.
Use all the senses. Smell the smells, feel the textures, hear the birds off in the distance, see the fog hovering ghost-like above the river, taste the brine from the sea. Well, you get the idea.
Those words are our paints, our clay. They’re all we have. We have to make each one count. And we have to make them invisible to the reader.
Causes Lynda Fitzgerald Supports
German Shepherd Dog Rescue, World Wildlife Federation, ASPCA, Atlanta Humane Society