I read constantly. Voraciously, with the fervor of a starved man downing a steak.
I believe it started as a way to cope with my anxiety — the symbols on the page give me something to focus on beside the constant fearful chatter that marquees across the backs of my eyes.
But what it morphed into is a love so deep and wild, I don’t think I’ll ever break free from it. Not that I want to.
Have you ever read a sentence, a paragraph, or a whole book that spoke to you on that spiritual level? If you’ve come across words that move you, you’ve witnessed a work of art.
In my own writing, I’ve used this to my own advantage. I’m an emotional human being — overemotional at times. But in my writing, no one can see or hear me, they don’t know my tone. They only know the words on the page.
I’ve worked very hard drawing emotion and depth out of my own writing. It’s not easy to move people with your work, but in my decades of study on the deep powers of words, I’ve gleaned a few words of wisdom to pass onto all you aspiring lyricists and poets and memoirists out there.
These strategies will strengthen your vocabulary, sharpen your descriptive knives, and engage your readers more deeply.
Strengthen Your Vocabulary
As a child, I loathed the dictionary.
Back in my day, we didn’t have handy apps to tell us the definitions of anything — we just had to look it up. A book was faster than the internet in those days.
So if I didn’t know what a word meant, I just moved on.
At some point in my childhood, I learned about context clues. For those of you not in the know, let me refresh your grade school memories.
Using context clues means parsing out the definition of a word by how its used.
For me, it’s more about getting a feel for the word: where it might be used, how it might be used, and the connotations around it.
It’s not important that you know and memorize the meaning of every obscure and beautiful word in the world — what’s important is you start remembering how words are used.
All words have connotations: love, for instance, has mostly positive connotations, reminding us of relationships and all of the things that we are passionate about in life. Death, however, has mostly negative connotations (depending on your culture of course, but in English it’s pretty negative), and so it would have a much darker feel to it.
Once you start to get a feel for certain words, the definition becomes pretty obvious. Although I still wake up some mornings with a word in my brain that I know but I cannot define — so I go ahead and look those up.
Another good strategy for strengthening your vocabulary is learning what prefixes and suffixes mean. A lot of words are easy to define when you understand the prefixes and suffixes, without even needing context clues.
Take the word maladaptive, for instance. Mal- means bad or negative, while “adaptive” means adaptable, able to adapt. So the word itself would mean: unable to adapt.
You can use this strategy on so many words — and you can also combine the two! Prefixes and suffixes usually have connotations of their own, and once your learn those you’re able to parse out meanings and the feel of words more easily.
Sharpen Your Descriptive Knives
Perhaps I’m just lucky: I’ve always been captivated by long descriptions.
In books, you don’t get a lot of chances to do “overview shots” like you do in movies, so having a few paragraphs of setting description always helps to set the scene for readers. It can also entice them into your prose, because long descriptions are where you can shine lyrically.
In this realm, I have a few guidelines:
1. Read the greats.
My favorite author of all time is John Steinbeck. If I hadn’t fallen in love with his achingly human characters, his descriptive writing is some of the most beautiful I’ve ever laid eyes on. If you haven’t read The Grapes of Wrath, you definitely need to.
I think it’s important as an artist to reflect upon the past. Becoming a wordsmith is not a short-term goal — it is a lifelong passion — and when you study the greats, you can see the whole spectrum of possibility in your own artistic journey.
2. Exercise your descriptive powers.
What is one thing you truly, deeply love more than anything in the world?
Write a paragraph about it.
When you’re done, analyze your word choice. Is there emotion in your words? There should be, if you truly loved the thing you wrote about.
How does that emotion come across? Analyze your words, their connotations, and how you used them. Find a strategy for pouring that same emotion into every aspect of your writing.
3. Emulate your favorites — with your own spin.
Now that you’ve studied the greats and exercised your own descriptive powers, you’re ready to put these things into practice. Bring emotion and craft to your description. Emulate the style of the greats — study their sentence structure and word choice — but make it your own.
When you work hard on the minutiae of writing, it pays off.
Engage Your Readers: Words that Move
The final step in this process is putting this all together, along with a couple more pointers:
- Try to vary your sentence length.
It’s important that you words have flow to them, and short sentences paired between longer ones works better than a paragraph of short sentences. It makes your writing seem choppy.
- Long-winded? Turn your run-on sentences into works of art.
This takes a bit from “read the greats” — most classical writers were amazing at crafting long sentences that flowed beautifully. For me, using transitional commas, em-dashes, and semicolons can break up the monotony of long sentences without turning them into an unreadable mishmash.
- Read your work out loud.
Do the words flow together well? Where did you stutter, where is the feel of the words wrong? Do you repeat yourself too often? It’s easier to edit a sentence when you look at it as a painting — only you’re able to fully remove a brushstroke.
- Lyricism is incredibly important and difficult.
Look to your favorite songwriters and poets for tips on this — you want your sentences to flow out of your mouth like a song. Working on alliteration, near-rhymes, and even iambic pentameter.
- Put emotion into your work.
What’s the point of writing about something you don’t give a damn about? Part of the reason why the greats were so great is because they were moved by emotion to pen things down.
You Can Write Beautiful Words
Honestly, it’s not that hard once you’ve done some studying. Read yourself into a coma. Write yourself into a coma. Try new things.
I hope that you can glean some wisdom from my own words. My favorite kind of writing is that which is a) practical, b) actionable, c) and beautiful.
You can write beautiful words. Just open up a vein and connect it to your keyboard.
Sam Ripples is an essayist and novelist living in southern Colorado. She has an interest in words that provide the mind, body, and soul with rejuvenation and hope. You can follow her on Twitter here.
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