Storytelling: The Right Word

Posted on May 4, 2011

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“Dive… DIVE” yelled the captain through the thing. So the captain pressed a button, or something, and it dove. And the enemy was foiled again!

My current contract is supposed to end today. We’ve been scoring 11th-grade expository essays for the last two weeks. I won’t say for what state, due to confidentiality agreements, but that work gave me the idea for this post.

The students often use boring, generic words rather than using better ones. Even the kids with good grammar, punctuation, spelling, and organization skills often make this mistake. They use words like people, thing, kids, and stuff. Now, I understand why. They don’t want to write high school, student, graduate, or teenager over and over again. They recognize that repetition, but the boring words fade into the background. Their rhythm and repetition escape the kids. A few essays show signs of real talent – using vocabulary well, displaying unique voices, and demonstrating exciting organizational plans.

The agony and the ecstasy of writing is finding just the right word. There are times when I stop in the middle of a paragraph for five or ten minutes because I know I can use a better word. I resort to a thesaurus or a reverse dictionary (I own this one, but there are online ones as well) to spark my thoughts. For a storyteller, getting the words and phrases right means communicating ideas and evoking desired emotional responses. It’s not just about avoiding repetition, of course. Nor is it about showing off the breadth and depth of your vocabulary. We saw a paper early in our project that was almost impossible to read because of the vocabulary. We could parse the sentences, but the vocabulary actually interfered with our ability to digest meaning.

Remember that dull words are thieves. They steal space that could be used by more precise, accurate, and evocative language. You only have so much space in any writing assignment, so that space is invaluable. Guard your writing well. Stand sentinel against the bandits of clarity!

(For those who don’t recognize the quote, it’s from Billy Crystal’s writing class in Throw Momma from the Train. I love his portrayal of a writer in that film)

Writer’s Block

Have you ever had writer’s block, where you just can’t figure out what comes next? How do you overcome it? Share in the comments, please.

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