April is poetry month. A time to bask in words. Poetry can help any writer--fiction or nonfiction--develop an ear for cadence, precision, and gorgeous language. Because they have hundreds of pages to fill, many fiction writers add boring, bloated descriptions. They wax eloquent about the unimportant, dragging in unnecessary details and backstory.
Poets, on the other hand, must hone every word. They cut repetition unless it has a purpose; they choose specific nouns and verbs. They make every word evoke emotion. Fiction writers would do well to follow their example. Think lean. Think precise. Think emotion-laden.
I took a class recently where we had to choose an ordinary word that we repeat often in our manuscripts (e.g., look or walk). Then we listed as many synonyms as we could. A thesaurus can help with this exercise. But the what made it valuable was that we ranked the words in order of their power. For example, look may range from peep/peer to glance to ogle or even glare. Each of those words carries a different weight and shade of meaning. There's a huge difference between glancing at someone or staring at them. Using look when you mean leer underpowers your writing. Writers sometimes try to add meaning with adverbs, but how much better to choose a precise word instead.
Why not try this exercise with several boring words you use frequently? Be careful, though, that you don't choose unusual synonyms when a normal word will do. Most people don't amble or stroll across a room. They walk. Too many amped-up words make it appear that the writer is trying too hard. Save the impact for where it counts most, but always be aware that another, more precise word may work better.
The Discovery of Poetry by Frances Mayes. She makes poetry come alive. By breaking poems down into their basic components and giving multiple examples of each, Mayes teaches writers to be mindful of emotion, texture, sound, rhythm, and meaning--all important considerations whether you write poetry, fiction, or nonfiction.
Here are a few examples she gives of telling vs. showing using lines from poetry:
She dresses sloppily.
She wears her clothes as if they were thrown on with a pitchfork. ~Jonathan Swift
The waves are rough.
Harsher than granite. ~Ezra Pound
His hand was ugly.
A hand like a fat maggot ~Jean-Paul Sartre
Which of these would you prefer to read? Showing not only gives a more vivid picture, it also adds the pleasure of surprise. The unexpected word choices give you a shiver of joy when you read them.
Taking your writing to the next level may mean spending extra time choosing the perfect word or phrase, but if it gives your reader a thrill, it's worth the effort.
Have you read words, phrases, or short passages that gripped you? Please share them so we can all delight in the joy of well-written words. Be sure to credit the source, so we know who to thank for that pleasure.