When writing gets frustrating, and you just can’t find that perfect word… it may not be writer’s block. Maybe it’s actually writer’s obsession. You’ve got the ideas and what you want to say but you waste momentum getting those thoughts on paper by agonizing over the absolutely perfect language.
Kind of like unable to see the forest for the trees, or adjectives.
As a Virgo (common traits: practical, organized, analytical, methodical, stuck in details, meticulous, fussy), I have the tendency to lose the potentially best thoughts. I can’t remember where I left my reading glasses, let alone a great idea I had before I stopped and searched dictionary.com for the perfect word.
If you’re like me, you just need to get the ideas down as they come to you and leave the perfect word until later – while cooking, gazing out over the lake as I do, or to you fellow insomniacs, in those sleepless hours. I did just that, writing this, even though it goes against my nature!
Prewriting and the Perfect Word
Its probably not news that you should sketch an outline of what you want to write – blog, speech or manuscript – and drop in those perfect word gems as they come to you. We all know the commonly-accepted steps in the writing process are prewriting, drafting, revising, editing and proofreading, evaluating, and publishing. I want to talk about one aspect of the prewriting stage, where there’s still plenty of time to refine, restructure, and come up with the perfect word once you’ve put down your ideas.
In the “old days”, it was more difficult to avoid the perfect word trap because if you decided on a better way of expressing yourself, you’d have to reach for the eraser tape or white-out (revealing my vintage here – I won’t even mention the perils of carbon paper) but now it is as simple as hitting the delete/backspace key in combination with spellcheck and Grammarly.
When I was in the corporate world, trying to write about a complex policy or initiative, bogged down and way too into the weeds, I’d literally step away from my computer and think about what a colleague once said to me in that situation: how would you explain this to your neighbour or friend? And I think the same holds true for any author … what are the words, not necessarily the perfect ones, and in plain language, that convey your idea?
By the way, I admit that I’m the most annoying dinner companion – can’t help myself from editing menus (Caesar, not Ceasar salad!). I do this, way too often – or indulge in this – or succumb to this – fall prey to this … wait, stop! …Or should that be cease and desist?
When Free Writing Helps Avoid Writer’s Block
One way to avoid the perfect word trap is by using Free Writing. It’s a free wheeling approach, kind of like free love (okay, getting carried away – I came of age in the 70s).
LifeRich Publishing, an imprint of Reader’s Digest, in an article about the writing process, talks about the pre-writing stage and the importance of Free Writing.
“Free writing means writing every idea that comes into your head. Do not stop to edit your mistakes, just let the ideas flow.”
True – would Shakespeare have stopped to second-guess “To be or not to be, that is the question.” (Or should that be … to exist or not to exist, that is the quandary) as he began to write the famous Hamlet soliloquy?
Peter Elbow, English professor and well-known advocate of Free Writing, writes about the processes of generating language in his book Vernacular Eloquence: What Speech Can Bring to Writing.
“The argument of this book is simple: that we can enlist the language activity most people find easiest, speaking, for the language activity most people find hardest, writing.”
In part, Elbow talks about the early stages of writing where it is possible to do what he calls ‘unplanned speaking onto the page’, or using our ‘speaking gear’ for writing. Conversely, when we are writing with our fingers, we can stop planning and choosing words with care and start to let words roll out unplanned or unmonitored, sometimes almost of their own accord–without having to work at choosing them. Just as spontaneously and un-carefully as we often do in safe conversation.
I studied Latin for five years in high school (nerd) and having learned the roots of words, it has been immensely helpful: in understanding other languages, particularly when travelling (another passion). It’s helped me in situations like, “Where can I get a glass of wine?” Vino in Italy and Spain, de vin en francais, all from the latin vinum. Also, always interested in language, I took a linguistics course at university – barely scraped through that one – Sanskrit was way over my head. To make matters worse, I write in five words what others write in 50 – hence, the search for the perfect word is all the more tempting.
With that in mind, I particularly like this advice, simply put by bestselling author Anne Lamott in her book Bird by Bird – Some Instructions on Writing and Life: “Perfectionism is the voice of the oppressor, the enemy of the people. It will keep you cramped and insane your whole life, and it is the main obstacle between you and a shitty first draft.”
Nerd, or Grammarian?
Described at Ingenium Books as the copyediting queen, I admit I’m a nerd – I love doing it. As a parent, I know they say that you’re supposed to pick your battles with your children but I couldn’t help getting into it with my daughter every time she said things like “me and my friend” instead of “my friend and I”.
I’ve come to realize that I’m not actually a nerd. I prefer grammarian. And some would say I’m a language lover – like the rest of the team at Ingenium Books.
So, let your fingers fly over the keyboard at first – you can always come back and do some retouching. Don’t wait for the perfect word to come to you – even though you may expect that of yourself because you’re an author.
Better hit save now before (lest) I’m tempted to search for more perfect words.