The Point of Words

I’m quite a cynic when it comes to popular ideas about literature and being a writer. Such ideas are mainly ones that tend to write an unrealistic cheque about the importance of writing and other such topics. In essence, if it paints a picture of writing that casts it as some important activity, I’ll question that.

Poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world – Percy Bysshe Shelley.

For me, this exemplifies the over-zealous and grandiose claims writers can make about their own importance. I don’t think it requires much explanation.

However there is an importance to writing that should be acknowledged and it’s not so straightforward. It has nothing to do with writers having some vital importance in society or the stories they tell, but simply their ability to be perceptive to the intricacies of words and how they interact with each other. In short, the main skill of the ‘writer’ is being able to select, arrange and order words in order to as accurately as possible to convey a message or rouse a desired response. It sounds rather banal, but it’s actually more important than you might think. Recently I’ve been involved with working on a film project at university with bioscience students, and it’s been my job to use my skills with language to convey what they want to say as accurately as possible. Sometimes it was small things like cutting down words and refining scripts, to more subtle things like choosing the correct verbs, arranging the syntax and grammar in the way that will best emphasise what they want to convey. In essence, it is editing – but it takes language and brings it into a state that is smooth but concise enough to emphasise a message.

This is a skill that I think is under-acknowledged. Having a good command of language is one thing, but an understanding of how to manipulate it to accomplish varying goals is quite another. Communicating well is not using a lot of long words and using lots of commas, but having short, sweet sentences that can be the equivalent of large swathes of text.

Therefore as writers, we should not just limit the well known ‘show not tell’ mantra to writing stories, but apply its essence to less creative pursuits. When should we try to show in language and when should we tell? When you are told to use ‘strong writing’ this doesn’t just apply to your novel. It also comes into all other applications of language. What we learn at first for creative endeavours are then skills we can then apply to other situations that demand language use.

 

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