A few months ago I bought The Writer’s Portable Mentor by Priscilla Long. Oh, how I’d love to sit at her feet and take a class from her! Sigh. But second best is her book: a treasure chest jam-packed with jewels.
Among other gems, Priscilla praises writers who “collect words the way some numismatists collect coins.”
She also knows about writers who, on the other hand, approach "language passively.… The writer is using only words that come to mind, or words he grew up with, or words she stumbles upon while reading The New York Times.… He strives for expression with rather general, conventional diction [word choice] that has little to offer in the way of echo, color, or texture.”
Priscilla says, “The writers of deep and beautiful works spend real time gathering words. They learn the names of weeds and tools and types of roof. They make lists of color words (ruby, scarlet, cranberry, brick). They savor not only the meanings, but also the musicality of words. They are hunting neither big words nor pompous words nor Latinate words but mainly words they like.… They are not trying to be fancy or decorative.”
Did you get that? Not big, pompous, fancy, or decorative.
Words that don’t require a dictionary.
One caution: Avoid using words to draw attention to yourself, words that might cause your readers to say, “Oh, what a clever writer he is!” That interrupts. That lures readers out of your story.
Instead, use words that keep readers involved in your story, words that make your places, characters, and experiences come to life.
Priscilla quotes Annie Proulx who admits to collecting and reading dictionaries (!) and to gathering words:
“I have big notebooks, page after page of words that I like or find interesting or crackly.… From time to time I will, if I feel a section [of writing] is a bit limp, take a couple of days and just do dictionary work and recast the sentences so that they have more power because their words are not overused.” * (emphasis mine)
That’s important: Avoid overused words.
Priscilla encourages The Lexicon Practice: a deliberate, ongoing gathering of words and phrases. She explains:
“There are two parts to the practice. One is to make your own Lexicon (word book) and the other is to collect words and phrases in a list that pertains to the piece you are currently working on.… Writers who do the Lexicon Practice have left in the dust [those who don’t]. Writers who don’t do it … are pretty much stuck with television words, newspaper words, cereal-box words.”
Now, I’ll let you in on a secret—a confession of sorts: I thought I was the only one who collected words! I was giddy upon learning from Priscilla that I was not a freak! A nerd, yes. A geek, yes. But a freak—no! (Whew!)
So, now that I feel OK about being a word nerd, I’ll share a few words I’ve gathered lately, words that would meet with Priscilla’s approval: they are not big words, not pompous, fancy, or decorative. They don’t require a dictionary.
mirth, jollity, glee, merrymaking
I’ve also been working on the second type of lexicon Priscilla recommends, a word book for an era in which several of my vignettes are set, 1950-1960 and—oh, my! It’s so much fun! More on that another day.
For now, though: Are you a word nerd? If so, leave some of your favorite words in a message below so we all can enjoy them.
If you’re not a word nerd, give Priscilla’s Lexicon Practice a try. Creating your own word book could lead to a new realm of writing for you.
*Resources and links:
Annie Proulx interviewed by Michael Upchurch, The Glimmer Train Guide to Wrong Fiction, 248. Quoted by Priscilla Long, The Portable Mentor, 23.