Tag: english

Finding the Right Words

Hemingway at his desk.

Each time we sit down to write something new we commence, as T.S. Eliot would put it, “a raid on the inarticulate.” We hunt for the right words to say what we mean but we often discover that we don’t know what we mean or that in the act of writing new meanings begin to present themselves so then the writing becomes a matter of reeling in the emerging meanings before they slip away.

Peter Elbow, a Professor of English Emeritus at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, has been a lasting influence on me since I discovered his book Writing without Teachers. In it he questions the conventional model of writing, that we first make our meaning clear before we start to write, and instead proposes an alternative model to “think of writing as an organic, developmental process in which you start writing at the very beginning -before you know your meaning at all- and encourage your words to change and evolve.”

For me the real treasure in this book is when Professor Elbow articulates the writer’s paradox, that it’s often difficult to figure out what we want to say until we say it, and says “The consequence is that you must start by writing the wrong meanings in the wrong words; but keep writing till you get the right meanings in the right words.”

It happens to us all.

When The Paris Review asked Ernest Hemingway what made him rewrite the ending to his second novel A Farewell to Arms thirty nine times Hemingway replied, “Getting the words right.”

Are You Writing Fit?

Credit: iStock

Two weeks ago Austin Kleon interviewed Sam Anderson, a staff writer for The New York Times, on Instagram Live about their work spaces (Sam’s library is enormous!), their appreciation for open dictionaries, and Michel De Montaigne, a mutual influence on both writers. Near the end of their chat (33:40 on the video) Sam mentions an exercise he does (I presume) most mornings:

“I do a morning exercise in my library which I stole from my high school English class. My English teacher was talking about revision and the sentence I remember her putting up at the front of the room on a screen was just the sentence: the man walked. She was like, ‘think about all the different verbs we have in English to describe how somebody moves or walks.’ The man ran. The man shuffled. The man slumped. You can get so much colour and meaning by changing one word in a sentence.”

This is the simple and lasting power of choosing strong nouns and verbs in your writing.

In Writing Down the Bones Natalie Goldberg compared writing practice to running. The more you do it the easier it gets. It’s never easy, but it gets easier. The comparison stuck with me for years until I read Scott H. Young’s Ultralearning this past month. One of the principles in his learning framework is ‘drill’ and the story he uses to illustrate the principle is how Benjamin Franklin learnt to write persuasively by reconstructing passages from one of his favourite magazines The Spectator from memory. That makes me think: who else drills? Athletes.

Fighters spar and hit combos on the punching mitts to prepare for a real fight. Tennis players drill and practice their forehand and backhand before they compete on the court. So why should we not also prepare ourselves for writing in the same way? Perhaps, for some, identifying as a writer is more important than actually writing. Their very identity hinges on the perfection of the next sentence so the mere thought of scribbling words on a page to warm up or straining to remember the order of someone else’s argument to improve your own arguments can unleash heavy resistance.

But not to worry, it gets easier.

Write morning pages. Write notes. Drill. Journal. Get yourself in writing shape.

As Kleon says: do the verb, forget the noun.


For more see: Renewing Confidence in Our Writing, Dare to Be Stupid, How Do Writers Write?