Thursday, 26 May 2011

A Fresh Approach to Word Choice

Don't tell me the moon is shining; show me the glint of light on broken glass.”  ~ Anton Chekhov

Every writer knows the mystery of words popping into their head when they are writing.  I contend that these words are from our subconscious mind, which has faithfully stored the sum of our whole life experience up to that moment of composition.

Any book is, I believe, an expression of the author’s conscious and subconscious mind.  The foundation of the approach to writing outlined here is the idea that the minds of all the authors who have ever written books are a potential resource to enrich the originality of our own work.

That is, if we draw upon books in the way outlined below – any books, in any number, that you wish to draw upon – we are drawing upon words, and sentence constructions, that quite likely we may not have thought to use, had we just been trying to write out of our own head.

A way to do this is to use the technique of bibliomancy, or divination from books.  To do it, riffle the pages of a book, and open it at any point.  Those two facing pages are a snapshot of the author’s conscious and subconscious mind.

Skim read those pages.  Write down the words that strike you.  I suggest that you choose a selection of words from across the word categories, that is, nouns, verbs, adjectives, adverbs, and so on.

Now repeat the process with another book, and then keep repeating until you feel you have enough words to draw upon.  It’s useful, I believe, to use at least two books.  This keeps any slight risk of plagiarism to a minimum.  But truly, doing the process word by word, rather than phrase by phrase, makes any risk of plagiarism almost non-existent.

I'd rather be caught holding up a bank than stealing so much as a two-word phrase from another writer.”  ~ Jack Smith

A way to view this is that the words you choose from one book are “one spice for a recipe”.  Most chefs use more than one spice, to give the dish a distinctive flavour.  Another way to see this is that the words from one book are one colour on your writer’s palette.  The more books you divine from, the more colours you have available to use, and mix according to your purpose.

Now go ahead and use these words in your writing.

Regardless of what type of writing you do, this “mind expansion”, linking your mind with the minds of published authors, will likely make your work more original.  Two or three or more minds surely are better than just your one.

Sentence pattern templates

Another, related way to use bibliomancy is to use the sentence patterns of books as templates.  To construct a template, replace each word in a passage with a cross, keeping all the punctuation.  This deconstructs the prose, allowing you to examine the author’s writing technique.

For example, a sentence pattern template for my previous paragraph is:

X, x x x x x x x x x x x x x x x.  X x x x, x x x x x x x x x, x x x x.  X x x x, x x x x x x x x.

This example highlights that my sentences were of a similar length, and I used a comma early in the sentence in each of the three sentences.

Obviously, doing this can be time consuming, but if you wish to closely examine the prose, or poetry, of a writer you admire, with a view to modifying their constructions for your own purposes, deconstruction can be worth the effort.  Be mindful that writing is a craft, and some of the most renowned writers down the centuries have laboured for draft after draft after many, many drafts to achieve their success.

How much effort are you willing to put in?  How badly do you want to succeed?  That depends on what your writing goals are, but if you wish to write seriously, in an original way, please consider the approaches outlined in this paper.