James Holden: The language of writing

ThesaurusLast week there were a couple of items in the news that touched on the choices writers make when it comes to choosing words. The first was a feature in The Guardian, who asked authors for their favourite words. Will Self chose “pipe down!”, Hilary Mantel chose and “nesh”, and Blake Morrison chose “whiffle waffle”. Authors chose these words for a variety of reasons, ranging from how they sounded, to childhood memories.

The second story was the results of the BBC’s 500 Words creative writing competition for children. The stories I have had the chance to read were cracking, but the part of the announcement that really caught my eye was the analysis of the 50 million words that had been submitted. It suggested that new technology featured a lot, and that both the word hashtag, and #, were quite frequently used “for dramatic effect [and] heightening tension”.

They also published a list of the top ten nouns used in the competition. They were: mum, day, time, door, house, friend, eye, man, dad, school.

There are many elements that make for a successful short story, but amidst all of the consideration of characters and plot, it can someitmes be easy to forget about language. The list of the most popular nouns used in 500 Words was never going to be too “out there”, not because of the age of the writers, but because of the frequency with which words of these types will crop up – once you’ve started writing “mum” in a story, there’s no need to switch to any of the alternatives the thesaurus tells me I could deploy instead – ma, mommy, mam or mater to name just four.

But finding the space to incorporate words like nesh or whiffle waffle, or hastag (or #), can help to lift a piece for the writer, make it much more engaging for the reader and also really influence the emotion within a short story. There’s a choice to be made about every word that is written, no matter how quickly, or reflexively we do it. For me, there’s a joy in coming across new or uncommon words in stories, but it can be a fine balance. But I also think there’s an extent to which some restraint is needed – overloading a story with a lot of uncommon words, or masses of description, will frame a piece in a way that could be distracting from the plot or characters, especially if it means the reader has to reach for the dictionary every couple of minutes.

Personally, two of my favourite words are “discombobulate” and “mugwump”. Maybe I should try to include one of them in the next story I write.

You can find the Guardian article here: http://www.theguardian.com/books/2015/may/29/from-plitter-to-drabbletail-words-loved-lost and the story about the Beeb’s 500 Words here:  http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/entertainment-arts-32927550

 

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About James Holden

Brought up in Yorkshire, James has washed up on the shores of London. He spends his days working as a political geek. His short stories have previously been read by the Liars League.
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