Of Chocolates and Word Choices from Dawn Shamp, Instructor

I love learning new words. But what writer doesn’t? Playing around with them, creating phrases that zip and zing, and then finding for them that oh-so-special place within my stories.

When my 1920s-era novel On Account of Conspicuous Women was barely an idea, I reveled in filling it with as many period words and regional phrases as possible. What I didn’t consider (well, until later on) was that not everyone shared my enthusiasm. Especially my editor.

I thought books like Strunk and White’s The Elements of Style and The Chicago Manual of Style were only for people who wrote papers with footnotes.

But a decade of wear and tear as a wordsmith has taught me that paying attention to grammar and use of language is about being a more thoughtful reader—and a more disciplined writer.

It’s taking time to check for spelling errors, redundant words, clichés, overwritten language, or anything that chokes clarity for a reader — what James Kilpatrick calls “ridding our prose gardens of chickweed banality.”

As a fun chickweed experiment, do a “find” search through your manuscript for the word “like.” Then consider the possible impact of deleting some of them. Can the story carry more subtlety or power by eliminating some of those “likes?”

I do believe Forrest Gump is better off with the quote, “My momma always said, ‘Life is like a box of chocolates. You never know what you’re gonna get.’” That momma thing, to me, conveyed far more than if he’d simply said, “Life is a box of chocolates.”  But sometimes it’s worth asking yourself if you should write, “She was just like her mother” or “She was her mother.”

These are not absolutes, but they’re exercises worth exploring for trimming, tightening, focus in line editing.


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