Writing As Art: Apt Word Choice

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Do you think of writing as art? Or a task with a set of rules you must follow? Many writers believe both are true and allow both approaches to guide their writing. Both have their uses but a bias for one or the other will produce different results.

Not too long ago, I read a book that, to me, held more useful wisdom than a manual or a course on how to write fiction.

Cover of "Reading Like a Writer: A Guide ...
Cover via Amazon
Francine Prose’s Reading Like a Writer (Harper Perennial, 2007) reinforces the idea that writing is an art and, therefore, like any other art, potentially anything goes. I like this view of writing. It resonates with my own beliefs.

To me, writing is an act of creation. The short story, poem, or novel that flows out of your pen is not much different from a painting that flows out of brushes and paint tubes. When you’re confident you have enough “tools” and know-how to sustain your craft, you let your creative instincts take over.

If ignoring what you’ve been told serves you better, you do so. That could define your uniqueness. We all know that great works of art have come out of breaking with traditions. Artistic revolutions are born that way.

Some examples of revolutionizing art:

Yes, there may be rules of writing, but in its history, Ms. Prose always finds some great writer who breaks any rule you could recite and not only gets away with it, but manages to come up with a classic that stands the test of time.

While Ms. Prose does deconstruct the act of writing fiction and discusses various stratagems to write “energetic,” effective fiction, I think her two main messages are these:

  • The best way to learn to write well is to read and pay attention to how great writers do it. The book includes a list of literary works to learn from.
  • The vitality of a narrative rests on the “apt word choice.” Ms. Prose questions the holy grail of writing instructors: “Show, don’t tell.” She thinks it’s “bad advice often given to young writers.

Sometimes approaching writing as art only needs the well-chosen word—one that vividly conveys what you want to say and cannot be replaced by any other. Here’s one of my favorite examples from a writer you’ve probably never heard of although she shares the name of one of the most famous actresses of all time:

The Quayne ladies, adjusting their mantillas, hurried across the courtyard to the chapel. From The Wedding Group by Elizabeth Taylor

Ms. Taylor could have written this sentence several ways. For instance:

The Quaynes were a closely-knit family of Catholics, whose women went to church regularly. The Quayne ladies, observing the traditional custom of wearing veils, hurried across the courtyard to the chapel.

But how much more elegant and pithy her way was—one that rests largely on the word “mantillas” and which no editor could have thought of suggesting.

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