When all your words feel stale, and your writing needs juice, there is an antidote. Her name is Diane Ackerman.
No other writer, in my experience of reading, has penned such interesting words on the page. Not only are the words interesting, it’s their usage and connection to other interesting words that make her sentences so delicious, ripe, and fresh.
Let us read from her most famed book, A Natural History of the Senses.
“Look at your feet. You are standing in the sky. When we think of the sky, we tend to look up, but the sky actually begins at the earth. We walk through it, yell into it, rake leaves, wash the dog, and drive cars in it. We breathe it deep within us. With every breath, we inhale millions of molecules of sky, heat them briefly, and then exhale them back into the world.”
She dives into the senses, the part of our existence that truly makes life luscious. Great writing does the same. It evokes smells, visions (ideas), temperature, textures, sounds. You can feel, see, taste what is on the page.
“Symbolic of life, hair bolts from our head[s]. Like the earth, it can be harvested, but it will rise again. We can change its color and texture when the mood strikes us, but in time it will return to its original form, just as Nature will in time turn our precisely laid-out cities into a weed-way.”
Her verbs are exciting and vivid. Bolts.
She re-defines what is expected, like the idea of “night time” (below), by sharing its advantages; what enters our sight when the Earth’s overhead light shuts off?
“Don’t think of night as the absence of day; think of it as a kind of freedom. Turned away from our sun, we see the dawning of far-flung galaxies. We are no longer sun blinded to the star coated universe we inhabit.”
If you are a rare bird who isn’t inspired by the literary cure that is Diane Ackerman, here are a few more tips.
Re-Type Other People’s Words
The greatest thing you can do for yourself is read somebody’s work whom you haven’t read before. Even a page. Pick up Virgina Woolf, whose prose is poetry.
“To want and not to have, sent all up her body a hardness, a hollowness, a strain. And then to want and not to have- to want and want- how that wrung the heart, and wrung it again and again!” (Virgina Woolf, To The Lighthouse)
Pick up a classic. Or journey outside of the genre you are writing. Re-type a single page of it, to feel its flow in your fingertips. Recite it out loud, to hear how the words sound in your mouth, outside of your head.
Re-visit and Replace
Of course, you can always revisit your sentences and replace some of your weaker word choices after you’ve written them. Replace passive verbs with active ones, or verbs that excite you (Here’s a short list from The University of West Georgia). Replace any word that feels like you are trying too hard to be smart. Replace any words that slow down the pace, or that are not necessary to paint the intended picture. Cut out ALL cliches unless you are poking fun at them, using it in dialogue to show how mundane/typical a character is (and even then, make sure your narrative is spicy enough of a contrast).
The 5 Words Challenge
Pick 5 random words from the dictionary, and challenge yourself to use all of them in one paragraph.
This is actually MOST effective when you RE-WRITE a paragraph you’ve already written using these 5 new words. It teaches your mind to look at your sentences differently and to witness the multitude of ways that you can convey the very same idea.
Read Diane Ackerman
Still, my best advice is to pick up a book by Diane Ackerman. I recommend A Natural History of the Senses and A Natural History of Love. You will learn loads of information about seemingly ordinary, everyday things (like Love, heh heh, jk) and be seduced by language once more.
This post was written specifically for Josh Real @FantasyRaider a great friend of mine from college who is working on an awesome sci-fi/fantasy (ish) novel (I think it’s more speculative fiction and magical realism. But that is for the marketers to distinguish.. :P). I asked what his current issue was in writing, and he said, “I think my biggest problem, and it’s probably a mental thing, but I feel like my words are becoming repetitive.” this blog is my answer to that.
If there is a particular aspect of your writing that you are struggling with and would like some quick coaching on, I’d be happy to give my best advice via this blog. Thank you! Find me on Twitter, @PortraitOfALady, and fire away!