6 tips to becoming a better wordsmith

The wordsmith. A noble tradesmen who creates sharp sentences by tirelessly forging, hammering,
and bending wrought words. This week, my writing research has been focused on this craft.

Why? Because anyone spit-shining an unpolished rough draft needs to master word choice. Strong words are a book’s muscles, and writers need to know how to trim the fat of a book without cutting away the good meat. If you wish for writing that doesn’t suck, here’s five things I’ve learned about becoming a better wordsmith.

1. Good writing is lean writing
Consider the objective of lean manufacturing. The fundamental principle of lean manufacturing is to take away any resource that does not create value to the customer. In manufacturing, “value” is anything that a customer is willing to pay for. As a wordsmith, consider how each word gives your dialogue or description worth in the context of your plot and theme. For example, the wordsmith of a humor fiction novel will cut the words that don’t get readers laughing as soon and as frequently as possible. Read your sentences, remove words (especially adjectives and adverbs), and ask yourself, “Has my sentence’s meaning really changed?” If the sentence still supports the main purpose of a passage without a word, than that word may need to be left behind.

2. Race to the theme, not the word-count
It’s hard not to focus on word-count when you are trying to write a 50,000+ word novel, but wordsmiths are concerned about value-per-word. Being in the marketing profession, I have the benefit of working with copywriters who understand the value of space. Copywriters very often have less than 500 characters (let alone words) to scream through the hurricane of media distractions and to strike lightening at their target audience. Their writing is lean, mean, selling machines. Fiction writers may not be selling a product per se, but they are asking readers to buy into an idea (your theme). When you are writing, try not to race to the word-count finish line, sprint to the idea. Once you get there, be a cruel sales manager, and fire any words that aren’t selling.

3. Fat vs. Muscle
As Herschell Gordon Lewis wrote in On the Art of Writing Copy, we want lean writing, not anorexic writing. Even though the wordsmith despises fluff, editing can’t be just about erasing the bad. The wordsmith knows how to identify the goal of a passage, and insert the muscle necessary to carry it through. When adding words as a wordsmith, make sure you are increasing the comprehension and depth of the main idea, and not just accumulating words.

4. Use specific, impactful words
With more than 1 million words in the English language, there’s no reason to settle for a word that doesn’t have oomph. By oomph, I don’t mean wearing out your thesaurus. When writing, stop looking at your work word-by-word for a moment, and consider your subject. Meditating about the person, place, or thing you are describing can summon better words than that treacherous thesaurus ever could. Thinking about what specific details to highlight is one of the easiest ways to raise your writing far above the depths of the nine circles of suckdom, and will make your writing more interesting.

5. Clarity
I recently sent a short story to an Elance editor, and the first thing he did was cross out everything he didn’t understand. No matter how great your writing, your reader will only like what is understandable. How can you tell your writing is clear? Read a phrase out loud. If a phrase makes you wince, delete it. Have a friend read your work. If you have to explain something, remove it. As Anthony Hawkins said, “Unless one is a genius, it is best to aim at being intelligible.”

6. Practice through speech
Do you ever find yourself saying the same phrases over and over again? C’mon…you’re a writer, speak like one! I’m not saying you should speak with an English accent and quote Shakespeare, but the best strategy for expanding your vocabulary is repetition. Speaking more colorfully is a good way to habitually practice your wordsmith talent. The next time you describe a movie you enjoyed, don’t just say you loved it. Instead, say the film was worth missing the birth of your first child or worth trading a basket of puppies. Don’t say the book gave a bird’s eye view; instead, how about a balcony view, a tree fort view, a skyscraper view. You might get some people scratching their heads, but once they figure it out, they’ll be charmed by your wit.
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