Monday, June 21, 2021

Creating Art from Language

 by Jan Drexler

Words, words, words!

As writers, they are the medium we employ to create our stories. Where would we be without them?

But there is a difference between using words and creating with words.

We use words whenever we communicate – I’m using words as I write this blog post, and you’re using words as you read it. We use words to express ideas, feelings, suggestions, commands, complaints… We use words a LOT!

However, when I pull up the file for my Work-in-Progress, I’m using words to create a story in my readers’ minds. Each word becomes important – not only in its meaning, but in its sound as it is spoken aloud and in the emotions it evokes.

Let me use this great word as an example: TRUCK.

If you’re like me, that one word brings forth a multitude of images and emotions to your mind. Let me name just a few – I think of dump trucks, semi-trucks, people driving trucks, pick-up trucks pulling campers or boats, work trucks hauling tools and equipment, ice cream trucks, delivery trucks, truck drivers, children playing with Tonka trucks…and then there are tons of off-shoots of those thoughts, including the movie ‘Convoy!”

But it is also one of my favorite words because it is onomatopoetic. Say TRUCK out loud. It sounds like what it means, doesn’t it? TRUCK. Solid. Utilitarian. No nonsense.

When I use the word "truck" in my writing, it is on purpose. I have chosen that specific word for a reason.

When we’re writing, we want to choose words that will create a sub-text for our readers. Words that create emotion and go beyond the text on the page to give our stories depth and purpose. Words that make our writing sing!

How do we do that?

There is no easy answer, but I can give you a couple suggestions to point you in the right direction.

1) Stay away from clichés, like the one I used in the previous sentence. Instead of clichés, use your own unique way of saying the same thing. So, instead of “to point you in the right direction,” I could have said “to help you choose words that will add a lyrical quality to your writing.”
One exception to the cliché rule – sometimes using a cliché in dialogue can give our readers a clue about our character’s personality. But that’s in dialogue, not narrative writing.

2) Keep track of weasel words. Those are words that we find popping up in our writing too often. For one book, my weasel word was “just.” For another book, it was “shrugged.” Just when I get one weasel word conquered, another one shows up, shrugging its shoulders apologetically. (Yes, I did that on purpose.) When weasel words dominate my writing, my story doesn’t sing. It drones.

3) Use strong words, but don’t overuse them.


Strong words? What are those?

They are words that we use instead of common words to bring more interest and artistry to our writing. I use to find synonyms for common words that will give me ideas. I often find a word that is perfect for my sentence.

But beware – I recently read a story that was so full of strong verbs and other words that it read as if the author or editor had gone down a list of synonyms and chose them without thinking. Don’t be guilty of that faux pas! We need to choose our words with care - verbs, nouns, adjectives, and adverbs.

The result of overloading our writing with strong words can sound like this:

Cindy detected a crack in the old, yellowed wallpaper. She ambled closer to inspect the fissure, triumphantly comprehending how this opening engendered the source of the secret door.

Do you see how too many “interesting” words creates a tedious set of sentences no one will want to read? The story gets lost in the dense underbrush!


Which brings me back to writing stories that sing. It isn’t only our job. It isn’t only our craft. It is our art.

And art takes work.

We write, rewrite, and rewrite again.

Rewriting gives us the perfect opportunity to clear out the weeds and weasels to bring out the strong structure of our story.

What about you? Are you a word-lover? Or as K.M. Weiland says, a "word player?" 
What is one of your favorite words, and why? (And please tell me I'm not the only one that loves playing with word meanings and sounds!)


  1. Such good and solid advice, Jan. The basics of good writing are good storytelling and overuse of anything (which we're all guilty of sometimes!) can drag heels along a story's edge. Thank you for this great reminder!

    1. Thanks, Ruthy!

      Good storytelling becomes memorable when we use the perfect words. One reason why I LOVE reading your stories is that you choose the words that convey emotion in a oh-so-subtle way. I'm reading along, enjoying the story, then wham, the heartstrings are pulled and I'm reaching for a tissue. It happens every time! :-)

  2. Jan, this is good and something I'll be thinking about as I go into the second draft of my WIP. Two things stood out for me in the "Cindy" example: "Triumphantly" and "Engendered." Ew.
    I think my overused word is "Well." I tend to use it a lot at the beginnings of my characters' sentences ("Well, why don't we do this" and "Why don't we do that"). My editor plucks them out like weeds.
    Bad start to the day, something got my tomatoes. Otherwise ok.
    Kathy Bailey

    1. Bummer about the tomatoes, Kathy. :( Hopefully they aren't all goners!

    2. Too bad about the tomatoes! One year a mouse ate our tomatoes. Just a few bites out of each one as they got ripe.

      I had to laugh at "well" in your dialogue! I'm guilty of using characters' names in dialogue. Really, when there are two people having a discussion, do they ever use each other's names?

    3. Jan, I am guilty of using character names all the time in dialogue. I have to watch for that in rewrites.

  3. I use a lot of cliches and "easy" words during a first draft. I want to get the thoughts down and hope that I come up with stronger, better words in the next draft.

    I think it's a pretty safe bet that all of us as both readers and writers love words. I love the way certain words sound, but others I like the way they feel when I say them. Some are just lovely to look at and others are just perfect with a certain accent. Love love love words and what a great post this morning.

    1. You hit a key point - "during a first draft." YES! Get the story down on paper, then clean it up during revisions!

      And I knew you were a word-lover!

  4. Hi Jan:

    As a language philosopher, well that's where I took my degree, I love words. But words are tricky. Words can mean different things to different people. Words can even mean different things to the same people.

    Consider this statement:

    "You can't eat too many of those red peppers."

    The above sentence can mean the opposite of itself.

    (1) You can't eat too many of those red peppers or you'll get sick and maybe die.

    (2) You can't eat too many iof those red peppers because they're harmless. You can eat them all day and you'll feel fine.

    Now consider this WWII problem:

    The US and England were negotiating a big deal for defense and England reported to the US that they were tabling the proposal. In England that meant they were ready to go ahead with the deal. However, in the US those same words meant the Brits were withdrawing the offer. This looked like a crisis for at the time. Fortunately the sides figured this out before it was too late.

    And yet it has been said that "the US and England are two countries separated by a common language."

    Of course word meaning can change when satire or irony is in play. Having something important in common usually does not separate the two parties -- rather it brings them closer together.

    Which reminds me of this apropos event.

    As a spanking new graduate student, (we were not actually spanked), I was invited to my first philosophy faculty department party. It was a real party with women dates, liquor, and 'funny' brownies -- whatever they were. At once I noticed two real pretty women talking while their dates must have been off engaged in deep conversation. (This was at the time of the other English Invastion, that of the 'Ordinary Langage' movement in philosophy. The big books were "How to do Things with Words,"and "Sense and Sensibilia" by J.L. Austin!) This is all true: look it up. :)

    One girl told the other, "Don't get them talking about words. It only encourages them." It was all I could do not to laugh out loud." Was she being funny or was she serious? I mean aren't you suppose to encourage dates to talk about themselves?

    As an aside, there was a whole school of literary thought called, "Mot Juste" of which Flaubert may be the most famous.

    From the Encyclopedia Britannica.

    Flaubert’s aim in art was to create beauty, and this consideration often overrode moral and social issues in his depiction of truth. He worked slowly and carefully, and, as he worked, his idea of his art became gradually more exact. His letters to Louise Colet, written while he was working on Madame Bovary, show how his attitude changed. His ambition was to achieve a style “as rhythmical as verse and as precise as the language of science” (letter of April 24, 1852). In his view “the faster the word sticks to the thought, the more beautiful is the effect.” He often repeated that there was no such thing as a synonym and that a writer had to track down le seul mot juste, “the unique right word,” to convey his thought precisely. But at the same time he always wanted a cadence and a harmony of sounding syllables in his prose, so that it would appeal not only to the reader’s intelligence but also to his subconscious mind in the same way as music does and thus have a more penetrating effect than the mere sense of the words at their face value. Composition for him was a real anguish."

    Don't we all write in real anguish?

    1. Even though it is anguish to come up with the perfect word or phrase, when we hit that beautiful apex, it makes all the anguish worthwhile.

      Thanks for your thought provoking comment, Vince!

  5. I love words and love picking the best word for certain situations. Like you, I love my Theasaurus, especially the one on my computer that makes word searches easy.

    I also love strong verbs!

    Weasal words! Oh my goodness, they're a problem. "Shrugged" gets too much use in my stories! LOL!

    Great post, Jan! Thanks!

    1. Thanks, Debby!

      Those weasel words get me every time. :-)

  6. Love it, love it, love it! I think you should teach a writing workshop on this topic! Well done!

  7. Great post, Jan. I try hard to come up with the right words.

  8. A great reminder, Jan! I, too, have "just" as one of my weasel words. In fact, it's probably my top one!

  9. I do waaaaay too much shrugging.


If you have trouble leaving a comment, please "clear your internet cache" and try again. You can find this in your browser settings under "clear history."