“In the beginning was the word.” So begins the Gospel of John. Setting aside theological implications, this is where writing begins as well — with words. The most recent screenplay I wrote has 18,864 words. Each of those 18,864 words represents a conscious choice on my part to best reflect on the page the movie I see in my mind. Which means that those 18,864 words are my allies, my troops, my warriors going to battle on my behalf to win the war of imagination with anybody who will read my script.
There is a famous anecdote involving Irving Thalberg, a successful producer and studio executive in the 20s-30s, known for his ability to select the right scripts and make profitable movies out of them. Here is a quote from a biography, “Thalberg: Life and Legend,” authored by Bob Thomas:
“At times Irving Thalberg seemed to hate his very dependence on writers and his frustration that he could not perform their functions. During one heated script session, he said almost contemptuously, ‘What’s all this business about being a writer? It’s just putting one word after another.’ Lenore Coffee (a screenwriter) corrected him: ‘Pardon me, Mr. Thalberg; it’s putting one right word after another.’”
“Putting one right word after another” — that is so right. When you bust it all down, writing is about choosing words. A writer can choose them well, or not. What’s the best way to make sure you make the right choices? Another writing mantra:
“Make words your friend.”
Like I say, words are your allies, your little warriors, your soldiers of good fortune. Get to know them. Nurture them. Pay attention to them. Here are a few ways to do just that:
- Know their definitions. I can’t tell you how often I read scripts in which a writer uses the wrong word, obviously because they don’t know the meaning. Words are messengers, they transmit meanings. I keep a dictionary on my computer desktop, so I can click on it just like that.
- Know their synonyms. The average person uses 2,000 different words in the course of a week’s worth of conversation. The Oxford English Dictionary contains 290,000 entries with some 615,000 different word forms. Wow! Why write, “He looks at her,” when you can substitute ogles, eyeballs, gapes, peeps, or rubbernecks? That’s why I keep a thesaurus beside my dictionary on my computer desktop.
- Know their power. You can get definitions and synonyms, but you also need to develop your aesthetic sensibilities. My advice: Revel daily in the world of word-imagination. Read screenplays, short stories, novels, poetry.
Make words your friend.
Be nice to them — and they will be nice to you.
For more Writing Mantras, go here.