When the Bee Gees sang ‘it’s only words’, they were deliberately downplaying the nuance of language. But even as writers we sometimes forget the complexity and vitality of those strings of letters that are the building blocks of what we do. I like to remind myself of the possibilities.
Words have shape, for instance. ‘Round’, both sounds and looks… well… round. ‘Straight’ sounds straight, but you’ll be hard pressed to find a straighter looking word than ‘line’.
Words also carry history. In English they split, with plenty of exceptions, into those from the character-filled Germanic line, at times as guttural as drunken poets, and analytical Latin, assured and self-important.
Words also move in different ways, often onomatopoeically. Thus ‘zoom’ is restless while ‘slouch’ slumps heavily over the page.
I’d argue there are a range of physical characteristics we rarely consider when we’re writing words – their colour, weight … even smell. ‘Toxic’ is definitely on the nose.
Why not try this exercise? It’ll only take a minute. Set the timer for five, if you’re game … Write words that go together for their form, rather than their function. They might sound, smell or taste similar. Free write. Keep your pen shifting across the page. If the words become sentences, so be it. If they don’t, so be it, too. Don’t think about it too much and don’t care if the words rhyme! This few minutes won’t turn you into that sad uncle who’s only speciality is rhyming slang! Remember, it’s only words.
Perhaps you will see a certain truth, a different truth, in these words? As Natalie Goldberg says in Writing Down the Bones, ‘Writing can teach us the dignity of speaking the truth, and it spreads out from the page into our life.’
Why do I care? Because the best writing is about conscious word choice and, when it comes to picking the perfect word for your sentence, meaning is only one of the things to consider.
May your words pour onto the page,
Richard Holt will be exploring words in all their glory as part of his ‘Text Me’ creative incubator through April 2016.