Don’t Struggle With Every Word.

I take pride in my writing. Being a writer, I have to. I’m not about to have my name on lazy trash. I grant you, any given piece of writing may not be a masterpiece from within my opus, but not everything I write is intended to be. Still, I believe my quality control is probably above the mean for people who write as much as I do.

Yet rare is the time I slave over every word. Any given paragraph, or even sentence may inspire me to such intensity, but I also accept that at times that writing, (even fiction) need only be serviceable. After all, doesn’t most writing fail its mission if most people are unable to decipher what they are reading?

I bring this up because on social media I often read about authors and writers that torture themselves over every word in every sentence to make sure it is just right. That is to say they literally mention that every word is a struggle into which they plunge themselves.

Articles that will tell you the only way to break into writing success and be recognized as a cut above other wordsmiths is to subject one’s self to such an exhausting slog through the dictionary in our minds and on our hard drives. The geniuses of literature, we are told, are those who denied themselves sleep, food, water, oxygen and whatever else it took until the best possible collection of words in their language came to them. After hours or even days of work they put these sentences down into their manuscript.

Then they move on to sentence number two…

Like any writer who cares, I have at some point slaved over any given section of something I am working on. I write and rewrite like anyone else does. Yet I have come to resent this notion that I need to drain myself via a mental odyssey for every word. Something in fact tells me that if someone is doing that, they are doing something wrong. If it takes that much effort to string together the thought you want to convey, a step or two somewhere has been missed. Or you are aiming for the wrong target.

Or, you’re pretentious.

That may sound harsh, and like all subjective judgments it isn’t applicable to every one who writes in this way. But for my money the end product in most cases is going to sound like you want to impress professors instead of sending a message or telling a story.

All of that mental energy being burned on every sentence? Every word? That may make one sound like they are more dedicated than other writers, but in fact it’s just burning energy you could better apply elsewhere. Even Hemingway wrote sentences that amounted to no more than an old man urinating off the side of a boat.

Now I am sure there was a reason Hemingway included that sentence, but do we honestly believe he spent the lion’s share of his time on sentences like that one? Or do we think he applied his brilliance to specific, important parts of The Old Man and the Sea and accepted that between the gold, simple utilitarian sentences would do the job?

I can’t know, of course. I never met the man. My instinct however tells me that although he, and the other “greats” did give every sentence due consideration, and asked themselves if it sounded right, I doubt they searched the depths of their mind for each and every one. How many different words for “urinated” are there anyway?

You may be brilliant, I can’t say for sure. But even if you are, don’t lose yourself in your own brilliance. The point of writing isn’t to be brilliant. It is to tell a story that moves people. You are not a lesser person if someone needs a degree in order to know what your story is about, but consider how many more people you might be serving if you put story first and brilliance second.

Don’t kill yourself over every word. Look at the big picture. The littler pictures will fall in place.

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2 Comments

  1. You’re totally writing about me, aren’t you? 😉

    I’m one of those writers who agonizes over every word. Part of it is an OCD thing. Every time I accomplish a sentence… a paragraph… some other milestone, I feel compelled to read the whole damn thing from the very beginning again, which means that I invariably find some word or sentence structure I’m not thrilled with.

    I also constantly re-read to ensure that the tone is consistent throughout, especially with longer pieces that I haven’t written all in one sitting.

    Still, I always find that the essays and blog posts that come easiest — the ones I whipped up in one quick, painless, dare I say enjoyable sitting — are the ones that readers respond to the most. Funny how that works…

  2. Not writing about you on purpose anyway. =) But i do sympathize with what you say, and I have to make a concerted effort to not do the same thing sometimes. I allow more ofit for non-fiction than I do with fiction, though.

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