Friday, October 7, 2011

Words: Spend Them or Hoard Them?

I think there's a tendency for writers to be miserly with their words. A good sentence is like found gold; it should be locked away in the vault, and used only at the right time.

It seems like a lot of writers feel they only have a certain number of good words coming to them. This is only natural, perhaps. Good lines seem to fall from heaven, at times, appearing mysteriously on dove-like wings. Here! A gift! Just for you! It's normal to squirrel it away. Save it up. To write only when the really good words come.

Except this can be damaging sometimes. We tiptoe around the precious words, scared to upset them, scared to bring them out in the open where we might lose them. I can't spend this great line in a blog comment, can I? Hardly anyone will see it, and then it will be gone with barely a ripple left behind! No, I shall write something simple in the comment box, and I'll save up this little beauty for some time when I can really use it, sometime when it will really shine.

But I don't think good words work like that. Writing is more like exercise. The more you do, the stronger you get. Your prose is going to get leaner and better. And the more energy you expend, the more energy you'll have. Sort of a paradox. But the more good words you use, the more good words will come to you. Indeed, better words might even come to you. But only if you spend the good words first.

I think this is partly a matter of simple confidence, or rather the balance of confidence against fear. Perhaps it's normal to think "What if the good words stop coming? What if this is it? I shall save this precious sentence..." Writers fear the well running dry.

And I think this depends partly on how we see the words coming to us. Does a muse send in singing telegrams? Well, what if the muse stops? What if we offend that muse, and the muse decides to send down sweet words to your neighbor, Chuck? What if Chuck gets the publishing contract?

I think it can help if you see the writing as work, and the words as a little heavy lifting. Work hard, lift a few more... and each time you'll get a little stronger. Each word you put out there will make you a better writer. Perhaps the change is infinitesmal and invisible. But it's there. It's been worked into the writing muscles. And the effort is cumulative.

No one gets up in the morning one day, without ever training, and goes out to run a marathon. They won't get far. But if the miles have been tracked into the legs every day, every day for months and years, then a marathon might be within reach. The feet have come to know the cement of the road.

So spend your words freely. The road is long, and you need to build up your strength.


Jessica Bell said...

This is SO true. I always notice I come up with more interesting material when I've been writing for a few days. I don't think I've ever 'saved' anything. I let it out when it wants to come out. Because that's when it is meant to exist. Great post!

Mia Hayson said...

If I only ever wrote when the good words were tootling about in my head, then I would write very few words indeed. Hahaha.

Great post! I totally agree. Writing is exercise of the mind.

Rick Daley said...

Good points, all. I think we get too caught up in the "rules" (write economically; don't over-write; NO ADVERBS!; kill your darlings; etc.; etc.; etc.).

The best things I've written have been nearly effortless. It's those times when it feels like The Muse is really driving my fingers that I enjoy most. If only that happened whenever I wanted...Alas, The Muse is a fickle one, and she sets her own schedule, at least she does at my writing desk.

Hemingway said something along the lines of, "For every page of masterpiece there are 99 pages of shit." You have to let all the words flow so you can filter and edit for the good ones.

No one word makes or breaks a story. It's all or none.

Matthew MacNish said...

This metaphor is almost as good as your building a house metaphor. Actually it's better.

That being said, I never hold back. As you well know, I usually over-write, but I am getting better as I continue learning.

And I'm just like Rick, the best things I've ever written have been effortless. Almost like they come through me, rather than from me.

Alex J. Cavanaugh said...

Consider all words and sentences as practice!
Doubt I've ever wasted words on a comment. Or my blog. Probably not even in my books!

Susan Kaye Quinn said...

This is one reason I love blogging/commenting. It's writing exercise in the form of socializing. :)

maine character said...

I so relate to this. In fact, even as a kid, I used to not say much 'cause I thought we all had a limited number of words.

And that stayed with me with writing - that sense that you got so many chips to place on the board, you better make them count.

But you're right - it is like exercise, and you have to build up that muscle tone and quick reflexes to catch the best words on the wind.

M.A. Leslie said...

As I always do, I am walking away from your blog feeling like I am taking away more than I am ever able to give.

Marsha Sigman said...

I am a rushing waterfall of analogies, a raging river of adjectives, a flowing fountain of lyrical language...

Does anyone else have to pee?

If you can still manage to write when the words come hard and few then you are definitely a Writer.

Joe Lunievicz said...

It's funny but I don't think so much about saving as finding the words to spend. I try to remind myself of what screenwriter William Goldman says in his book Adventures in the Screenwriting Trade (I know I'm getting some part of this wrong but work with me): Just get something down even if it's shit. You can work with shit but you can't work with nothing. I guess I'm more concerned with famine than feast. The idea of writing building muscle is so true and works with Goldman's words of advice.

D.G. Hudson said...

I spend my words as they come to me. Sometimes they're sparse, sometimes abundant, it depends on the subject I'm writing about.

I agree that confidence plays a major role in how we use our words. The more you practice, the more you learn. I love it when someone unexpectedly throws in a beautiful word or sentence in something ordinary like a newspaper column. A touch of cynicism always wins me over in editorials.

Love this: The feet have come to know the cement of the road.

Matthew MacNish said...

Okay. So the fact that Joe is commenting on Bryan's blog, and the possibility that someone I know MIGHT have had something to do with it ... is beyond awesome.

Of all the writers I know, Joe and Bryan could easily be the two most undersung.

Bryan Russell said...

"The Almighty says this must be a fashionable blog. It's drawn the finest people."

- Stephen, from Braveheart (with a slight revision)

Munk said...

The more you write, the more will flow. The effort comes in controlling the spigot.

Kelly Robinson said...

I'm not worried about the well running dry. I'm quite aware that I will die before I get all my ideas written down. (I have 1,500 Google Document files of notes and ideas to attest to that.)

Ciara said...

I love this philosophy. It is so true. Like anything in life, we need to practice to get things right.