Writing Secrets: The one core ingredient for being a writer

 In Jo-Anne Richard's blog, Tips for Writers

The difference between the almost-right word and the right word is really a large matter—it’s the difference between the lightning-bug and the lightning.

That was Mark Twain, not me, but I love that quote. Last week, I reiterated what I know to be true: if you want to be a writer, care about words and sentences.

It seems obvious, and yet it apparently isn’t. I do still come upon those who wish to write, but who think they need only to dash off an exciting plot – and that some editing minion will pull it together for them and make the words sing.

They won’t, I’m afraid. It’s up to you. You are the wordsmith, after all.

In a New York Times interview, novelist Tessa Hadley was recently asked what moved her most in a work of literature. Her reply perfectly chimed with my own view.

Is it just too obvious to say, the words? Because those come first, rather than the themes or the stories or the analysis. When you’re standing in a bookshop opening up a novel or book of short stories by someone you’ve never read before, there’s a period of rapid testing, where you enter into the sentences. It’s in the arrangements of the language that the intelligence and the taste show up. Are those words, in that sequence, clumsy? Banal? Hyped-up, or showing off? And then, if not, if the book’s good, you settle into trusting it. If the book’s good, each successive sentence adds something you’ve never known before.

And just in case you’re not yet convinced, I’ll leave you with Dylan Thomas:

I fell in love—that is the only expression I can think of—at once, and am still at the mercy of words, though sometimes now, knowing a little of their behaviour very well, I think I can influence them slightly and have even learned to beat them now and then, which they appear to enjoy. I tumbled for words at once. . . . There they were, seemingly lifeless, made only of black and white, but out of them, out of their own being, came love and terror and pity and pain and wonder and all the other vague abstractions that make our ephemeral lives dangerous, great, and bearable.

Read Richard’s latest blog: ‘Monday Motivation: Notes on writing complex characters

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Showing 2 comments
  • Brett Bard

    Thank you! I totally agree. I was listening to Hisham Matar in conversation on a BBC program yesterday. He also read a descriptive excerpt from his book ‘In The Country of Men’ evoking his memories of Tripoli using quite ordinary words composed in a most beautiful and moving way that made me weep. I immediately ordered the book!

  • Trish Urquhart

    Sounds tempting, Brett. I think I’ll be ordering it immediately on the basis of your words, and also because I was born in Tripoli and have always been intrigued about the place.

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