Laura Howard: Harness the Power of Words

11/5/12

Harness the Power of Words

In April, I took part in a fun challenge put on by Robert Lee Brewer to help build a writer's platform.

It turned out being so much more than I expected as I met some wonderful friends, one being today's guest Julia Tomiak. Julia does a fun weekly challenge on her blog that I encourage you to check out-- The Word Nerd Workout!





My daughter’s favorite possession right now is a pack of 120 crayons.  Yes, 120.  The other night, while drawing a pumpkin, she found eight shades of orange.  


And you know what? Like a good artist, she used them all.


Writers don’t rely on crayons for creating memorable stories; we rely on words.  And the best writers can think of eight different ways to say “stubborn”.  


The Power of Words

Read the following passage from Toni Morrison’s novel Paradise; she is describing a small group of women as they run from armed men.  This line comes near the end of chapter one, and it has stuck with me for over 13 years:

Bodacious black Eves unredeemed by Mary, they are like panicked does leaping toward a sun that has finished burning off the mist and now pours its holy oil over the hides of game.  

I love Toni Morrison’s ability to harness the power of words.  In this one sentence, she skillfully uses alliteration, metaphor, and that awesome word
bodacious to paint a vivid picture.  (Don’t know what bodacious means?  Let me help- it means sexy or remarkable; it probably came from a blend of bold and audacious.)    


Don’t you want to be able to write like Ms. Morrison?


Build up your personal vocabulary

If you’re going to use words well, you have to know a lot of them.  Start cultivating your vocabulary today; some ideas:

Read poetry: Poetry emphasizes the raw power of words; it also helps with figurative language.

Read prose:  Fiction and non, classic and modern.  I’m currently reading Jane Eyre, and every page has at least two words that I need to review.

Look up words you don’t know: I keep a note card tucked inside the books I read, so that I can jot down an unfamiliar word, my guess at its meaning, and its actual meaning.  For those of you using e-readers, this process is super easy- just consult the device dictionary. If you hear a new or interesting word during your day, pull out your smart phone and Google it!  With modern technology, there’s no excuse to remain ignorant.

Utilize tools like www.vocabulary.com, subscribe to Webster’s Twitter feed, or visit my blog!  Anything that presents new words to you on a regular basis will help.

Use words intentionally



While writing and speaking, challenge yourself to use a wide variety of words.  Don’t be afraid to employ new vocabulary in everyday conversation.  Anyone can say, “My daughter is so stubborn.”  Be different; say, “My obdurate child refuses to listen.”  


Especially in written text, watch out for these mistakes that sap the power of words:

Repetition- For example, Martha crossed her arms and stomped across the room could be rewritten as Martha crossed her arms and stomped out of the room.
Qualifiers- Words like “quite, rather, very, and pretty” deplete strength from words they precede.  If a character is hostile, say so, instead of “She’s pretty hostile.”
Clich├ęs- the best figurative language hasn’t been used a billion times already; think of a new way to describe something.  Your fresh take will have more impact.  

Words give us the power to entertain, encourage, and inspire; don’t underestimate their value.



For more helpful tips, consult:


The Elements of Style by Strunk and White
Self Editing for Fiction Writers by Browne and King


What are some of the things YOU do to keep your writing fresh? Tell us about them in the comments!

6 comments:

  1. Very salient points! It also explains my passion for poetry and song lyrics.

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    1. You've got it! Song lyrics often inspire me. Glad you enjoyed.

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  2. For a long time I was subscribed to Dictionary.com's word-a-day. I don't know if they still offer it, but I enjoyed it because it not only gave the word and it's definition but also example of where the word had appeared in literature.

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  3. I'm in total agreement about the qualifiers - they tend to dilute. My favourite lyric comes from one of REM's songs: "Night Swimming" - "What if there were two (moons) around the ferrous sun?" Conjures up a dreamy image, and managed to use the phrase "ferrous sun" in one of mine, which delighted me!

    Julia

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  4. Loved this post! In my family, hubby and I always praise the use of a "good word." There are so many interesting and lovely words in the English language, just begging to be heard!

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  5. These are all such good suggestions. One thing I try to do is come up with different phrases and new ways of describing scenery or people.

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