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Writing Workshop: Language: play with words

As human beings, we are always striving to find the best words to express our ideas and experiences. We play with language, twist it, restructure it, invent it. As writers, it’s our job to find and use those words to convey the experiences of our characters and so make those experiences come to life for our readers.

Mark Twain made the now famous statement:

The difference between the right word and the almost right word is the difference between lightening and a lightening bug.

He was stressing how important it is not to settle for language that’s okay, that nearly hits the mark. As writers, our duty is to chase after the perfect word until it leaves us red-faced and out of breath.

I love fresh language. At one end of the spectrum, this might mean a neologism: a posh term for a new (neo) word (logos). In contemporary terms, googling is a neologism. It is interesting that technology geeks are leading the way in finding new words to describe our increasingly online experiences – and that their words are sometimes as intriguing and fresh as the ones coined by our poets.

Shakespeare was a master at neologisms and playing with language: he contributed banditswagger, and gossip, along with over 1700 other new words to the English lexicon.  He wrote at a time when English was wonderfully malleable and used that to his advantage as he coined all kinds of new words to convey the universal human experiences of his characters.

Take a look at Shakespeare’s swear words and you’ll get some idea of how much fun he was having: tickle-brained; flap-mouthed; onion-eyed; wagtail; darkish; gleeking. So much more original (and specific) than the insults we use today.

Throughout the ages, writers have given us new words: Charles Dickens invented the word boredom. Sylvia Path coined the term dreamscape.

It’s not all about new vocabulary though. The poet e.e.cummings has shown us how beautifully flexible the English language can be. He played with grammar, spelling and punctation. Take these lines from his poem, ‘Anyone Lived in a Pretty How Town’ – the lack of spacing around the parenthesis is not a mistake.

children guessed(but only a few

and down they forgot as up they grew

Look at this unconventional way of ordering words: our expectations of language are turned on their head. We expect to see, ‘they grew up’ but instead, he gives us, ‘up they grew.’ He also combined words in wonderfully fresh ways: ‘down they forgot.’ It might not seem to make sense, grammatically, and yet we know exactly what he means by ‘forgetting down.’ Language should serve the demands of thought and emotion, rather than following strict grammatical rules. 

We might not all be gifted in the art of creating new vocabulary but we can use the vocabulary available to us in new and exciting ways. Words are how we come to understand and interpret the world – and new words, by their nature, make us look at the world in a new way too.

Why this exercise matters:

Our job, as  writers, is to give our readers as rich an experience as we can.

Coining new words for familiar experiences allows our readers to see and feel the world differently – and captures their attention in the way that old, well-worn words sometimes fail to. Pushing ourselves to use words in inventive ways will make our writing come alive.

Workshop:

 

This exercise will encourage you to invent fresh and interesting words and phrases by using language in unexpected ways. To get started, you’ll need some words to work with, so make four lists with about six words in each:

  • Nouns (examples: fox, tree, bread, star, pavement, crow)
  • Adjectives (examples: yellow, tall, dry, fat, fast, thick)
  • Verbs (examples: run, cycle, hug, dance, leap, drive)
  • Suffixes and prefixes: (examples: un-, dis-, re-, pre-, non-, anti-, -er)

Now that you have four lists, start playing. Work through the exercise below but don’t feel limited by the words you’ve chosen – consider new words and combinations.

  • Combine one of the nouns with one of the suffixes or prefixes to form a new word (example: desker).
  • Combine any two words to form a new word (example: jollysquat).
  • Turn one of the nouns into a verb and use it in a sentence (example: They’re catting through the club).
  • Use an adjective as an adverb in a phrase or sentence (example: She’s running blue).
  • Rearrange the words in one of the sentences or phrases you’ve written (example: Through the club they’re catting).

You can repeat these exercises infinitely, always bringing new words and ideas into the mix. You’ll find that the more time you spend on creative exercises like these, the more your mind will open to experimental language and wordplay.

Extension:

Consider a specific scene or poem you are working on, create lists of words, as above, related to that scene and then think about how you can make your expression fresh and engaging by bringing together unusual combinations of words or by playing with prefixes and suffixes. Consider how this breathes life into your writing.

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Photo by Emma Davies.