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Pack Every Word With Power, by Gary Provost
The well-chosen wordone that is honest, active, specific and appropriategives your manuscript the power to entrance readers. Editors, too.You are a hypnotist. Yes, you are. If you are a writer, you are a hypnotist. Hypnosis, in my dictionary, is "an artificially induced sleeplike condition in which an individual is extremely responsive to suggestion."
I can't think of anyone more responsive to suggestion than the enthralled reader. A killer is in the closet, you say, and the reader's heart starts racing. You hint that there is treasure on the island; the reader envisions the pieces of eight and prepares for adventure. There is no sign of a gun, not a whisper of danger, no battened and sea-crusted chest set before him. You convince the reader with no more than a collection of squiggly black lines on white paper. And those lines can be infinitely more effective than the shiniest gold watch swinging before the glazed eyes of the hypnotist's subject.
The lines, of course, form units called words, which possess in varying degrees the power to hypnotize your readers, to convince them of your suggestions. Some words are absolutely mesmerizing. Some merely induce a mild trance. And some are so poorly chosen that they wenfronckmonkin jar the reader out of his trance.
Consider what just occurred in your brain when you came upon the word wenfronckmonkin. You were going along with my suggestions. You believed that you could hear me speaking to you. You had "forgotten" that you were reading. But my invented word wenfronckmonkin, an extreme example of choosing the wrong word, had no power to keep you hypnotized. For an instant, you "woke up" and realized that you were reading.
Certainly you don't fill your prose with nonsense words that make bizarre noises in the reader's head. But you might be using far too many of the words that have little of the power required to hold a reader's attention. One word usually won't shatter the spell you have cast over the reader, unless it is something absolutely inappropriate like wenfronckmonkin, or a word that is blatantly misspelled or contains a typographical error. But if you consistently use words with little power, your reader will never descend very deeply into the trance. Throughout the reading process, he will remain aware that he is reading, and you will be in constant danger of losing him to the TV, that chore that's been nagging him, or the article that begins on the next page of the magazine. (Keep in mind that long before that, your reader will be an editor and you could lose him to the next manuscript on his desk.)
So, after you have finished a draft of a story or article, strengthen it: rearrange sentences, shorten paragraphs, add dialogue, introduce another character, etc. But after you've done that, read through the manuscript again and cross out all the words that have little power to entrance a reader, and replace them with words that have the power. I'm going to give you some guidelines that will help you find words with power. But first, three points to remember.
Obviously, this is a broad generalization and if you replace every word in your manuscript with the shortest possible substitution, you would end up with pretty dull prose. Nonetheless, a short word containing the same information as a longer word or a phrase is almost always more powerful. Rape is stronger than sexual assault. Mourn is stronger than lament. Stretch is stronger than extend, and rich is stronger than wealthy. "I can see her now in her yellow taffeta dress" is stronger than "I can envision her now in her yellow taffeta dress." Very long words--five syllables or more--are almost always weak.
The fastest way to learn this lesson is to read anything by Ernest Hemingway. Hemingway, the Nobel prize winner who lands on almost everybody's list of greatest American writers, was an absolute miser when it came to syllables. This paragraph, which I picked at random from his The Sun Also Rises, contains only two words with more than two syllables.
"Finally, after a couple more false klaxons, the bus started, and Robert Cohn waved good-by to us, and all the Basques waved good-by to him. As soon as we started out on the road outside of town it was cool. It felt nice riding high up and close under the trees. The bus went quite fast and made a good breeze, and as we went out along the road with the dust powdering the trees and down the hill, we had a fine view, back through the trees, of the town rising up from the bluff above the river. The Basque lying against my knees pointed out the view with the neck of a wine-bottle, and winked at us. He nodded his head."
Replace the underlined words in the following sentences with words that are shorter and more powerful. Hemingway would have.
The words I had in mind? found, fell and state. These words are simpler and short, and they hold the reader.
Power Words Are Specific
Did you find you were more interested, leaned a little closer, when I told you the man was a priest? That's because he became more specific, more interesting, and you could see him better. If I'd have told you a midget, a monk or a thief had entered the room, you would still have found him more interesting than just "a man."
A cobra has more power than a snake. Gossip, prattle and chat all have more power than talk.
The specific word usually has more power. In fact, I recently bought a
book because of a specific word. The book is The Last Good Kiss,
by James Crumley, and I plunked down $12.75 for it after reading only
Crumley's opening sentence:
"When I finally caught up with Abraham Trahearne, he was drinking beer with an alcoholic bulldog named Fireball Roberts in a ramshackle joint outside of Sonoma, California, drinking the heart right out of a fine spring afternoon."
That's a wonderful lead, but if Trahearne had been drinking with an alcoholic dog instead of an alcoholic bulldog, I might not have bought the book. For me, that specific word, bulldog, brought into focus not just the dog, but also the bar, the beer and the fine spring afternoon. Why? Because by telling me what kind of dog it was, the author convinced me that he must have been there to see it. How else would he know it was a bulldog? He increased the power of his suggestion.
A warning. When you reread your manuscript, don't arbitrarily make words more specific. Choose carefully. When you make a word specific, the reader assumes you are trying to tell him something. If your character is driving a car down the highway and you change it to a Jaguar, you gain power, but you also further characterize the driver. You create connotations of money, speed, charm, etc. Make sure you choose a car that is consistent with all the other messages you are trying to send the reader. (Reread Crumley's opening sentence and see what happens when you change bulldog to Doberman.)
Power Words Are Honest
Power Words Are Appropriate
Six years ago, when I was hired by a large Roman Catholic church to write a booklet for its centennial celebration, I included a section about one of the church's outreach programs: a drop-in counseling center. "Among the center's clients," I wrote, "are prostitutes, alcoholics and drug addicts, who come not for a sermon, but for help." That same year in a mystery story, "The Eight Thou," published in Anthology, I wrote about the same types of people, but I wrote, "Randy waited on a cold stone bench, in a long line of hookers, winos and junkies." The words in my story were shorter and generally more powerful, but because they have pejorative connotations, they would have been inappropriate for my church booklet. I would have lost power because the words would have clashed with the tone of what I was writing.
Power Words Are Active
You will also gain more power over your reader if you change verbs of being, such as is, was or will be, to verbs of activity. You can make the reader believe more in your static description if you give objects something to do. If you have written, "A grandfather clock was in one corner, three books were on the table, and the smell of cigar smoke was in the air," get your pencil. Give those inanimate objects work to do. Write something like, "A grandfather clock towered in one corner, three books lay on the table, and the smell of cigar smoke filled the air."
Do the same thing with these sentences, replacing words I have italicized.
Here are some ways you might have gained power in those sentences.
Power Words Are Dense
One of my favorite words is arguably, not because it is so pretty, but because it is dense. All the other ways of saying the same thing require more words: "It can be argued that," "According to some people," etc.
Here I have rewritten slightly the first two paragraphs of Bob Greene's article "King of the Wild Frontier," which appeared in the March 1982 issue of Esquire. I've inserted and italicized some phrases that could have appeared in one of Green's early drafts.
"In the middle of the 1950's when television was just passing the stage of being something new in American homes something important happened."
People had already become used to the idea of the TV set introducing people they didn't know to them. What had been impossible to imagine only a few years before--the concept of moving pictures appearing in one's own home, inside an electronic box--was on its way to becoming something that would be seen everywhere.
If Greene did write a draft that looked like that, he ended up replacing those phrases with words of greater density and power. Something new became a novelty. Instead of people they didn't know, he wrote strangers. Impossible to imagine became inconceivable and something that would be seen everywhere is simply commonplace.
To gain the power that comes with density, find adjectives and adverbs that can easily be compressed into the nouns and verbs they accompany. Take the power of mean person and crowd it into bully. Reduce wrote rapidly to scribbled. Spoke quietly could be mumbled, and kissed lightly could be pecked. (Watch for those "ly" adverbs, which often offer a good chance to squeeze more meaning into the verb.)
Power Words Are Familiar
Also avoid foreign phrases and professional jargon unless you're certain that the unfamiliar words are doing some important work in the sentence.
Power Words Are Unexpected
Here is an excerpt from Crazy Boy, a young adult novel I've just completed. See if you can replace the common and somewhat predictable words, which I have italicized, with words that are familiar, yet more powerful because they are not quite what the reader expected:
"Jeremy could not understand why at a moment like this it all shone so clearly in his mind. And yet at other times his hopeful view of the future would break into a hundred jagged pieces, like a mirror falling to the floor, and the pieces would melt into a muddle of vague yearnings, suspicions, and the certainty of failure. Now he stood by the window three floors above the city and tried to move his mind back to that mysterious maze of disorganized thought that sometimes plagued him. And though he couldn't quite get there, he did remember some of the feelings. And he remembered also that the pieces of his dreams didn't always melt away; sometimes they stayed as they were, and he melted."
When I rewrote this paragraph, I changed shone to glowed, view to vision, falling to crashing, pieces to fragments, move to steer, plagued to tortured, and pieces again to fragments.
Copyright Gary Provost 1997-Present. All rights reserved worldwide. Reprinted with permission. "Until his untimely death at the age of fifty, Gary Provost was one of the most beloved writing instructors... and arguably the leading teacher of writing in the United States.” ~Writer’s Digest His powerful nonfiction includes Make Every Word Count (Writer's Digest Books) and The Freelance Writer's Handbook (New American Library). www.garyprovost.com
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