The word-myth

Words are the stained glass in the church window: the eye-catchers, the glamour, the individual pieces of shining beauty.

They’re also the least important part of a novel. Really, for most of the time you spend working on a piece of writing, words are the last things on your mind. They’re the most easily changeable aspect, and only a small proportion make it unaltered from first draft to last.

It goes like this. When you first put pen to paper or open up a virgin Word file the most important thing to get down is the story. Of course, writers work in different ways: some make extensive preparations and know exactly where the tale is going. Others fly by the seat of their pants and allow the story to unfold organically, taking them where it will. Most will be somewhere in the middle.

Whatever the technique, the first draft is always about hammering the basic idea into shape. Of course, you can’t do this without words, and some of these will (hopefully) be wonderful, exquisite, evocative. But most will, in essence, be place-holders. Each successive draft will erase whole forests of characters and plant new ones in their place. Or perhaps that section will be wiped altogether as plot-holes are ironed out, inconsistencies erased, precise pace perfected.

This is how writing works. Only a staggering genius can create a perfect novel without editing.

Before you get to the details of individual words, a writer first has to get the whole story down on paper/hard drive. Then you have to beat away at that idea, making sure it has the right shape: that it has a strong central plot, enough side-interest, the right mix between action and reflection… the sort of thing that a reader should feel subconsciously, maybe never noticing the intricate architecture beneath. Like the lead lattice that holds the individual fragments of colour in place in a church window.

Then comes the sharpening. The honing of the blade. Making sure your characters are believable, your dialogue crisp, that there’s no flab on the flesh. More words are erected, lots and lots demolished. Of course, at every stage you’re going to be finding different, better words for your dramatic (or expositional) needs. Sometimes you’ll spend hours on one section, endlessly working to find perfection in your phrasing. And then a draft later you realise you need to get rid of the lot.

I think it’s important to realise this. A lot of people are put off writing because they worry about not having the right words. They’ll start off but then hit a plot-bump (like a speed-bump, but the size of Godzilla in the writer’s mind) and, panicking, suddenly feel like they’re not capable; that they’re writing rubbish, that the words won’t come.

You’ll probably have heard that you should ‘turn off your inner editor’ when writing the first draft. I can’t argue with this, although I am somewhat grumpy at the twee-ness of the phrase. But it’s an over-simple expression and I feel it’s often misunderstood. Let me spell it out: words don’t matter.

It’s always up to the individual writer how best they work. If you go to extremes you could take my advice as telling you to plan extensively, packing all your scenes into a neat little box and doing a first-draft that’s little more that a time-line of events – what you want to happen where. Successive drafts can then be the unpacking of these boxes, building up to form a full story. If that’s what works for you, great.

I can’t do this; I’m a seat-of-the-pants guy. I start with a starting point, have a resolution in mind, they try to steer a line from one to the other. And on the way I try to find as many good, keepable words as I can. Yeah, I’m searching for perfection with every word I put down, and I’ll do a bit of slash-and-burn on the way as my plot temporarily derails or if I realise that yesterday I was really, really, too pissed to write.

But it’s not worth getting hung-up (or hung-over) over. I know that the important thing in a first draft is to nail down that plot. The words will come together along the way, throughout the redrafting process. As ‘Papa’ Hemingway put it: ‘There is no great writing, just great rewriting’.

Words are the stained-glass, the ornamentation; the crowd-pleasures, the attention-seekers. But they’d be nothing more than a pretty distraction without the right foundations, buttressing, stonework (crude or precise, depending on the effect you want to achieve). So by all means enjoy the glitter. But next time you read a novel, spare a thought for the elegant tracery that holds that glass in place.

1 thought on “The word-myth

  1. Pingback: On discouragement | A Writer's Life

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