Thursday, December 18, 2008

Don't Worry About the Words

They're just not all that important.

I'm in a mood to commit writer heresy today. So here it is:

I don't really care about the words.

Let me repeat that: I don't care about the words. On an individual level they really don't matter to me. Neither does the punctuation. Even the meaning is negotiable, at least at the sentence level and paragraph level.

What I care about is the story. It doesn't matter to the story whether something is ebon or charcoal or plain old black. Any of those or none of those might serve depending on the surrounding words, the tone, and what I want the reader to take away from the story. Even then it's not a fixed value.

When I first write the sentence containing the word meaning (black) I could use any one of dozens of words, depending on what tastes right, or nearly right, in the moment. If I really cared about the word as a unit, this is a point where I might end up slowed down or even stopped for a long time while I found the exact right word. But knowing that it's the story that matters, not the specific word, I can just go ahead and drop in something that approximates what I need and move on.

Sometimes the initial choice is the word that I end up using. Sometimes it gets changed on the second pass, where I move through as a reader and try to make the whole thing feel smooth. Sometime the word goes away along with the sentence or paragraph that holds it as I realize that (black) would be better placed earlier or later, or implied, or that the reader doesn't need to know, or that (blue) would serve the story better.

It's not until my very last polish pass before sending something out that I start to get nitpicky about the words. Even then I don't really sweat the details too much. I have been at this for a while and I know that nothing is final until it has gone to press, and even then there might be later editions.

My agent might ask for changes. My editor might ask for changes. I might write a sequel or a related piece before the original is published, and that might necessitate changes. I might put it aside for a time and come back and make changes.

All of those changes will affect the words, shifting meaning, nudging flow, altering tone, restructuring scene and paragraph and sentence.

I don't really care about the words.

I care about the story.

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Your results may vary. All normal restrictions apply. Caveat emptor. There are a thousand ways and one to write to a book, every one right. Etc. etc. etc.

12 comments:

jen@ywt said...

I have fallen into the trap you gesture at and it was hard to get out. I have trashed what otherwise could have been good work over it. But at least I learned what works for me. Now, whatever structural/stylistic elements I want to play around with are all fine and dandy, but whatever else I get up to, everything I use exists in service to the Almighty Story. I still start out in pencil, but word processors make fine-tuning at the end a helluva lot easier than it's ever been before, too.

Of course it's an each-to-each thing, all standard caveats, etc., but imo this is really excellent advice, Kelly, especially for writers who are still trying to produce their first few longer works.

Stephanie Zvan said...

I care about the words to the extent that I care about voice, which is a good bit. I spend a fair amount of time thinking about which words and types of words a narrator would and would not use.

However, I do it mostly up front, when I'm getting into character as the narrator. Then I stop thinking about it unless something throws me out of character. After all, most people use most of the same words. Even at that point, I'm more likely to flag something for editing and write more of the "easy" stuff.

Bill Henry said...

"I don't care about the words," writes Kelly, then, metaphorically speaking, pulls the pants off that statement by dedicating 350 words of a 460-word post to a detailed discussion of his process of word selection, sentence- and paragraph-level composition, polishing pass, editorial review and cleanup, and so on, concluding with the thoughtful remark that changes at all levels of a story "will affect the words, shifting meaning, nudging flow, altering tone, restructuring scene and paragraph and sentence."

(He cares about the words.)

Douglas Hulick said...

I look at the words through a jeweler's lens. Some days, that is good; other days, it is not.

What I need to get better at is setting the lens aside from time to time. Always working, always learning.

Kelly McCullough said...

But Bill, for me that's all about story, not about phrasing. Attention paid to the words is a side effect.

Bill Henry said...

When you say stuff like "attention paid to the words is a side effect," I have to think (as I do of the original post generally) that you're just being disingenuous.

I mean, paying attention to words is pretty much *all* one does as a writer, isn't it? You build your story out of them (words), after all, not out of paint or clay or musical notes?

I'm not just quibbling here; this is an important idea to me: there is no difference between "story and "words."

Or to use the terms in which this idea is typically framed, "content" and "style" aren't radically separate things, which exist independently of each other.

The story ("content," the "story itself," "what happens in it") and the way you tell it ("style," "phrasing," the words you put on the page) aren't materially distinguishable from each other.

How could they be?

There is no "story itself" until you tell it. And you tell it with words. The words you choose, one by one by one, build the story you tell. Change a word, you change the story.

Words aren't side effects or ornaments; they're the atoms out of which the universe of story is built. Different combinations of atoms build a different universe.

And so on.

I'm on holiday. Why the heck am I blogging?

Kelly McCullough said...

My contention would be that story is the sum of words at the aggregate level and that too many writers spend too much time worrying about words on the individual level, focusing on making a specific sentence work exactly right rather than focusing on how groups of sentences go together to convey information.

I write poetry as well as novels, and for poetry I care about the individual words in a way that I don't at novel length. The process of writing poetry is fundamentally different for me. It's much harder and orders of magnitude more time consuming, because with poetry I'm looking at things at the individual word level as opposed to the paragraph or scene level.

With a novel I can usually find a half dozen ways to convey a bit of information any of which is roughly as good (in my eyes) as any other.

Kelly McCullough said...

Here's another way to look at it. Write a novel in German. Get three really good translators, one English, one American, one Australian. Have them all translate the original novel into English. There will be significant differences in the words from translation to translation, but the fundamentals of the story should come out reasonably close. That core story is what I really care about.

Bill Henry said...

Yeah. In spite of ranting philosophically, I'm not exactly disagreeing with you in any of this.

There was a point to my rant, though, which I'll try to come to now (I'm slow with these things, sorry).

Regarding Kelly's original post, what I wanted to say to the readers of this blog who come here looking for advice about writing is this:

If you read the post (as I did) as the words of an excellent, established professional writer (Kelly!) giving himself—and by extension you as well—permission to write a sloppy, even crappy, first draft, a draft that's all function and no form, well, yeah! that's terrific advice. Get to work!

But if you read it as excusing you as a writer from having to care about, and labor at, your craft—and that means your words, because they are the only tools you have in this job—then you're not doing yourself any favors.

And (bonus) if you begin to wrap your head around the idea that there's no difference—there can be no difference—between "story" and "words," "content" and "style," you've just taken your first step into a larger world.

Kelly McCullough said...

Okay, Bill, we're not too far off the same page here. But there's a second aspect to what I'm talking about that I'd also like to emphasize in the simplest way possible:

Don't get married to one particular word or phrase.

Books aren't static creations, not until the very last instant before going to press. Writing is a dynamic process and losing sight of that is a good way to tie an anchor around your ankle.

Laura Bradley Rede said...

I hve written lyrics for musicals, and that is a situation where you feel like certain words are etched in stone because they are the only ones that satisfy the meter/rhyme/meaning. But I would still say that imho words and story are seperate things. If I may go all Zen koan on you, I think words are the bucket for the water that is the story. The bucket shapes the water, it helps deliver the water, it keeps the water from being lost. But you can't drink the bucket. :)

Anonymous said...

As a artist, I care about the words, they each have different meanings and nuances. As a reader I care about the words, they all lend themselves to the tone the quality and my overall enjoyment. As a WRITER (not the stress) I don't really give a rats pattutie, there going to flow in the tone. I'd also have to disagree with Kelly, poetry is much easier, the words don't matter as much, because there is really only one word that would work, so I don't have to think about it. For writing longer works the words are more important because there are different ways different people or PoVs would talk and different words they would use.