May 9, 2007

Words: Good or Gold

by Anna Arnett

A Few Thoughts About Words

I'm not an expert, even in my own opinion, but I believe I've learned a few things. So, I'm listing them here for my own benefit and review. Hopefully, I'll even use them.

I suppose it's universally agreed that words form the basis for passing on all information—whether truth or falsehood. The more enticingly words are combined, the greater their longevity.

I remember plowing through textbooks that, while they may have held valuable, and possibly fascinating information, were very somnolent for me. Yet I can still easily stay awake all night reading good fiction as I involve myself, heart and soul, with the protagonists, cheering for their success, or weeping for their sorrows.

What makes the difference? Books of all kinds are written merely with words, and according to Word Power, I have an excellent vocabulary. Still, I recall my frustration of almost half a century ago when, while trying to read a college textbook on the history of education, I almost gave up in despair. Here I sat reading the words, eager to learn because I needed the information to pass the class. I knew a definition for every single word in the chapter, yet I had no idea what it actually said. How could that be? At that time, I attributed it to the fifteen-odd years since I had tackled a textbook but I have since often pondered. Why do some combinations of words bore, while others vitalize?

Perhaps it could be because some words get their mileage only in usage. All words are good, and useful in their place but, let's face it, many are extremely mild. They carry little inspiration and, though they willingly assist with all they have, they volunteer very little.

For example, all 'to be' words (is, was, were, are, etc.) are quite static. Sure, they are good words, but they just sit there. I'd like to compare a narrative filled with was-es to a sketch—a rough draft that could stand alone, but also could be developed into something spectacular. Nobody knows better than a fellow artist how much input and imagination it takes to portray any picture, whether with a camera, pencil, brush, or words. Now, if a writer doesn’t elucidate, it leaves the reader to fill in the blanks. In that case, if the reader lacks imagination, the story stays flat.

All action words are not equal. Some can be rather sluggish and indeterminate (came, went, walked, etc.) yet they do give direction, and movement, thus instilling a bit of life. We might say they turn a snapshot-like narrative into something comparable to a slide show, or to the old, jerky, silent movies. (Have you watched any? They are terrific in their own way. Rudolph Valentino exemplified liquid grace even then, and my favorite, Buster Keaton, kept me laughing or cheering without even speaking a word. But I digress.)

Just as better cameras and techniques give grace and fluidity to a movie, so precise, specific action words give depth and understanding to reading. Things flow better as we picture details more easily.

Then there are ‘reaction' words that depict thought and emotion. They help us identify with characters; put ourselves into the story so we really care about what is happening. May I compare it with adding sound to personalize and vitalize a film?

Moreover, is a drama nearly as effective without music? We expect a love scene when violins play, tense for danger with somber tones, are energized by drum beat—you get the picture. Likewise, the words we choose can sway feelings, and bring thoughts not stated. Just as poetry is a concise way of playing upon our emotions as well as upon our minds, words of prose can carry, not only the precise meaning, but also a world of connotation. To write poetically, then, is to choose persuasive, meaningful, words whose very sound, rhythm and sometimes rhyme will contribute to the overall effect. Poetic writing is music to the soul. Remember to take time to read your manuscript aloud to see how it flows.

Some black-and-white films are wonderful but not many people prefer them to color. Therefore, toss in short, descriptive words or phrases.

Putting it all together properly, with imagination and verve, can legendize any story, whether spoken, written or filmed. Words are only tools of the trade. Mark Twain is supposed to have quipped, “Anybody can write a book. Every word you need is right there in the dictionary.” A thesaurus helps find word variety but you, the author, must make the choice.

Precise, descriptive words are golden. Go for the gold.


  1. What an excellent essay on words! I, like you, can doze through the most enlightening, improving information, and yet be riveted by a good tale. That's why I love a good non-fiction writer. Can't name any right now--yes I can. C. S. Lewis. I love his MERE CHRISTIANITY and THE WEIGHT OF GLORY. And I stumbled onto F. F. Bruce a few years ago as I was winding my way through Michae's Books in Bellingham. It's a marvelous, rabbet-warren of a used book store, and I always check out the Christian section. I found Bruce's THE NEW TESTAMENT DOCUMENTS: ARE THEY RELIABLE? there. He doesn't have the gift of words that Lewis has, but his testimony of the Savior is equal, I think. It's a slender volume, so it's not so daunting and zzzz-producing.

  2. Anna,
    I learned a new word today! Thank you! I had to look up somnolent in the dictionary. I understand the word because of the context in which it was used, but I realized I didn't truly know the exact definition. So, in keeping with one of my resolutions for the year, I looked it up. After 5 months of looking up every word I don't understand, my dictionary use is finally becoming less frequent. For the first few weeks it happened several times a day!


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