Choosing words is hard. Even the most practiced writer, the ones whose writing allows the reader to savor the words chosen, works at choosing the right ones. I once read an interview with Maya Angelou in which she said that fifty drafts was fairly common for her to get something right. And Mark Twain noted that:
… the difference between the almost right word and the right word is really a large matter—’tis the difference between the lightning-bug and the lightning.
Even when you have the right word, where to put it is as important as the decision to use it at all.
Lewis Carroll’s Poeta Fit, Non Nascitur takes a poke at poetry, where a young writer asks an older poet for advice. Some of the advice satirizes not only poetry writing but publishing as well, and some of it is good old fashioned writing tips but expressed as Carroll alone can express them.
At one point the older writer gives advice on adjectives, or as he calls them “epithets” (a choice which itself is more poetic than using the hum-drum word “adjective”). He assures his young questioner that there are four epithets that will always prove useful for a poet: wild, lonely, weary and strange.
The novice writer asks:
And will it do, O will it do
To take them in a lump –
As ‘the wild man went his weary way
To a strange and lonely pump’?
The writing sage protests:
Nay, nay! You must not hastily
To such conclusions jump.
Such epithets, like pepper,
Give zest to what you write;
And, if you strew them sparely,
They whet the appetite:
But if you lay them on too thick,
You spoil the matter quite!
That’s where Carroll’s advice jumped off the page at me. Adjectives are like seasoning: use a little here and there and they flavor the writing nicely; pile them all on at once and you spoil the dish completely.
I hope to prepare tasty dishes when I write.