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Use word-gathering to become a better writer

Writing a poem or a paragraph is like solving a puzzle. I seek the perfect word not just for its meaning but also for sound and rhythm. In the process, I stumble upon other words that draw my attention and, before I know it, I’m off on an adventure. Words are like gems, sparkly and seductive in their power.

Priscilla Long, in her book, The Writer’s Portable Mentor: A Guide to Art, Craft, and the Writing Life, says she knows writers who have worked hard for years that do “pretty good work” but have never made the transition to great writing. The reason? Often, these writers—though hard workers—approach language passively. They only use words they grew up with or use in everyday language. Long doesn’t mean that we should suddenly spout elongated Latinate words but that we should become word gatherers, seeking out words that call to us with their sound, texture, rhythm, or meaning.

She gives an example from Annie Dillard’s writing:

Nature is like one of those line drawings of a tree that are puzzles for children: Can you find hidden in the leaves a duck, a house, a boy, a bucket, a zebra, and a boot? (Annie Dillard, “Seeing,” 694).

Dillard’s words aren’t long or complicated. In fact, they are quite plain, but her idea and the music her words create are what make this sentence stand out.

Long says that if we want to take our art to the next level we should become word-gatherers. Keep a notebook. Write down words you like, words you think you might use in the future. Look for specific and concrete words, not abstract words, because universal themes are shown through specifics.

For each of my writing projects I start a new notebook and file on my computer for words for that project. In my fantasy book, a list of words for my antagonist’s setting looks like this:

Northwest plants/trees: 

Informational website: King County Gov. — Go Green

Along the ravine:

Trees: Black hawthorn, Western Hemlock, Paper Birch

Ferns: Six different varieties of ferns

Grass: slough sedge

Vines: honeysuckle and blackberries, huckleberry bushes

Flowers: Morning Glory, Goat’s beard

Poison Hemlock:  Acutely toxic to people and animals. Gained notoriety through its use in the execution of Socrates.

I also have a notebook for words that don’t necessarily relate to a current project. The act of writing the words down seems to embed them in my memory for later use. And, if I get stuck for the perfect word, I can browse my word lists for just the right gem. And, if it’s not there? Sometimes one word will spawn another.

Do you gather words? If so, how? What’s your system?

One Comment Post a comment
  1. I am not sure if I knowingly gather words, but I think any new and interesting word – that I come across a sufficient number of times – automatically registers itself in the mind, and brings itself to the fore when the time comes.

    August 8, 2011

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