I don’t want to be a writer.
(Mhm. I said it.)
(And actually I spent a solid hour or more on Twitter scrolling through a Harry Potter account, mostly to avoid writing this post.)
Writing, after all, is hard. I have wrestled over the difficulty of that for some time now, and as I was mentally preparing this post in my head, I realized why.
The difficulty of writing is not in the act itself. It’s easy to put fingers to keyboard or pen to paper and write words. The difficulty in writing is the act of choosing the right words, of selecting the ones that will illuminate precisely the meaning of what you’re trying to communicate. The authors we love most, who create worlds for us beyond our understanding, are the ones who have practiced this to the point of mastery. (And even then, there is still so much to learn.)
So the battle for us as writers is not to master the imitation of those who have gone before. It is to master the precise art of selecting the right words. And I don’t mean “right” as opposed to “wrong,” but as opposed to “not the best.”
But why is mastering diction, or the art of choosing words, so important?
First, creation is an act of worship. We will never worship perfectly. But to worship God at only half of our ability is to rob Him of the glory that is rightfully His. He used words to create His best work and He called that good. He has only asked that we would do the same with the gifts He has given us, and for many of us, that means writing, speaking, or both.
Second, our words have the ability to bring people to Jesus or to push them away. When we resort to cliché and Christianese, when we say what is easy in lieu of what is true, we push them away. I mentioned in my Influence Network class on writing that even I, who believe firmly in Jesus, am pushed away from Him when I hear Christians say the happy thing instead of the true thing. You might feel the same way as I do in those instances, and in that case, you know well why it’s critical not to say what’s easy but to say what’s true.
So how do we figure out which words to use instead?
1. Acknowledge the emotions of others. This is hard for me because I am, admittedly, not a sympathetic person. I am, however, deeply empathetic. One of the hardest things for me to speak to is grief, but I have tried to find a way to do so anyway. I remember thinking, when people would share about heartrending situations, that my heart was breaking with theirs, but how on earth was I supposed to communicate that my heart felt ripped apart as well? And after a while, it occurred to me: I knew just how I felt, so that’s what I should say.
Another way to sit with people in the midst of their emotions is to think about what you would be doing with them in person (and even if you are face-to-face with the person in question, you can still do something like this). For celebration, you can say you’re so happy, you’re throwing confetti in their honor. For a trial of some sort, you can say you’re kneeling at the altar with them. Say figuratively what you might do literally, but either don’t have the ability or the opportunity to do with them. This is not untruth; this is metaphorically communicating to your people that you’re supporting them, in joy and in pain.
2. Draw a picture. You can tell me that you spilled a drop of coffee on the paper this morning or you can tell me a drop of coffee carved its way down an Egypt of newspaper. You can tell me social media makes you feel like you’re vicariously living or you can tell me it makes you feel like you’re shut up in a closet watching through a small pane of glass as everybody else lives their lives. You can tell me writing is emotionally hard or you can tell me it feels like you’re taking your heart apart under a microscope until you find one thin cell from which you can extract a few words that hopefully make sense. (Ask me how I feel about writing.)
Bring the emotion to life. You feel hurt? What does hurt look like to you? Feel like? Smell like? Blue and grey, suffocation, death.
What does joy look like? Feel like? Smell like? Confetti flying, heart bursting, crisp fall air.
And so on.
3. Use a thesaurus. When I can’t nail down the right word, either because there’s one I have in mind that I can’t recall or none of the ones I know quite nail down my meaning, I head to thesaurus.com and put in the closest word I know. Sometimes it takes me a while to find something that fits, but I almost never come away dissatisfied.
4. Read. If you read books that challenge your reading comprehension, you’ll run into a plethora of words you didn’t know before. I constantly encounter words in books I’m unfamiliar with. I can sometimes discern the meaning through the word’s context, but sometimes I do bring up dictionary.com for a more precise definition.
In addition to expanding your vocabulary, reading books that challenge your comprehension means you’ll gain a greater understanding of the syntactic flexibility of the English language. By nature, good writers challenge the function and the structure of the language, so reading more of them will in turn shape and inform your ability to do the same. It also demonstrates an ability to keep language tight; we often use words without thinking of how liberally we dispense them, but reading writers who know how to rein in the length of their sentences will assist us, in turn, to do the same.
Do you have any tips for choosing the right words? In what areas are you most challenged to use exacting diction instead of saying what’s easy or quick?