WIELDING THE RIGHT WORDS (And the Right Journals.)

by Shutta Crum

Okay, you’ve slogged through a difficult—even hellish—first draft (or two). Your plots are working (external and internal voyages), and your characters have depth. Good. And now you need a break. You’re in luck!

Now it’s time to play. That is, to play a kind of hide & seek with words that are precise, revealing, elegant and, even, incantatory. In essence: the right words. Won’t that be fun? You know it will, because if you are like most writers you come to your love of story through a love of language having first heard the words fall softly upon your ears. And many children’s book writers started out as poets—those musical arbiters of words. Whether we write novels, non-fiction, poetry, beginning readers or picture books, we are all word artisans, fabricators, roustabouts, and surgeons. (There! I just had a little fun.) So let’s talk about words.

It seems to me that words have personalities, and like any person there is always more than what meets the eye. Words have emotional baggage, a cultural upbringing, physical sensibilities and an historical demeanor. For example, take a look at these beautifully written lines.

  • “I sound my barbaric yawp over the rooftops of the world.” (Walt Whitman, Song of Myself #52.)

  • “Life's got to be lived, no matter how long or short. You got to take what comes.” (Natalie Babbitt, Tuck Everlasting.)

  • “I was within and without, simultaneously enchanted and repelled by the inexhaustible variety of life.” (F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Great Gatsby.)

  • “Have you ever heard a blindfolded octopus unwrap a cellophane-covered bathtub?” (Norton Juster, The Phantom Tollbooth.)

  • “During the whole of a dull, dark, and soundless day in the autumn of the year, when the clouds hung oppressively low . . .” (Edgar Allen Poe, The Fall of the House of Usher.)

  • “So the salesman jangled and clanged his huge leather kit in which oversized puzzles of ironmongery lay unseen but which his tongue conjured from door to door . . .” (Ray Bradbury, Something Wicked This Way Comes.)

There is gut-deep emotional baggage in Whitman’s use of the word yawp, especially when it is paired with barbaric. The perfect word choice. Compare yawp to wail, or scream. Each carries a different emotional feel.

One can see the cultural differences in the language used by Babbitt and by Fitzgerald. Babbitt’s speaker is countrified, perhaps unschooled. This comes about through her use of the verb got. Fitzgerald’s character is highly educated, and perhaps a bit proud of his erudition.

Both the Juster and the Poe quotes arouse a physical (sensual) response on our part. That word cellophane paired with an octopus! And a blindfolded one at that. How perfect. Also listen to all the “d”s and the low vowel sounds (the “u”s and “ou”s) of Poe’s opener to his classic short story. The effect is one of dragging us down, just as the rider is emotionally dragged down upon his approach to Usher’s house. Or for a simpler example of the physical qualities of language: compare the word slide to scud. Which is heavier? Bet you said scud—though it’s one letter shorter than slide. It’s the vowel sounds that make the difference.

Finally, the Bradbury quote is a wonderful example of how language can be dressed in historical garb and evoke an old-fashioned period. The story takes place in the mid-1900s but words like ironmongery and conjure evoke an earlier, less-scientific time in which the rainmaker/salesman seems to be rooted.

So where do you find just the right word? Through reading great writing! But if you’re like me, the brain’s little gray cells can only hold so much information. My trick: specific journals for specific things. When I read someone who obviously has a mastery of language I keep a list in a word journal of all the great words I come across. (It’s OK to learn through imitation! That’s how the masters did it, too.)

So from Seamus Heaney I have listed: flood-slubs, whiff, sluicing, glarry, bogbanks, bestowals, etc. From Robinson Jeffers: enskyment. From Charles Wright: scrim & snow-scud, sealash. From M. T. Anderson: maw, starveling, suckings & buffetings. From Edith Wharton: indolent and purpling. You get the picture. This also helps when I know I will get stuck searching for just the right descriptive word for a color. So I have lists of alternative words under color headings. Did you ever try to describe the exact shade of someone’s blond hair? Well, under “Yellow” I have: gold(en), flaxen, tawny, chrome, cream, lemon, bronze, sunny, buff, honey, sunshine, ginger, butterscotch, milk-thistle, straw, citrine, caramel, hay, canary, and flame. Believe me, targeted journals like these come in handy!

Another specialized journal I keep is an onomatopoeia list. I use an alphabetical index. Under each letter of the alphabet I list onomatopoeic words that begin with that letter. So under the letter “M” I have: mash, mush, misty, moan, moist, murmur, meow, mew, moo, munch, etc.

But please! Don’t ask me about my daily journaling habits. I’m abysmally undisciplined as far as that goes. I’m much more interested in individual words than I am in words about me as an individual. And here’s a good one for you: endeavor.

Here’s hoping you always find just the right word. Cheers!


About the author:

Shutta Crum is the author of thirteen picture books, three novels, and numerous poems and articles. Her THUNDER-BOMER! was an American Library Association and a Smithsonian Magazine “Notable Book” of the year. MINE! was listed by New York Times as “one of the best board books of the year.” Many of her books have made the Bank Street Best Books lists and have been short-listed for state awards. Her newest picture book MOUSELING’S WORDS is garnering glowing reviews. PW says: “. . . a tribute to the way books can unite even the unlikeliest of friends.” Booklist says, “This earnest and encouraging title fits on the shelf of books for book- lovers . . .” And Kirkus Reviews sums it up as, “Encouraging, lovely words.” For more, visit: www.shutta.com.

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