Whether you like them long or short, seductive or plain, the subject of this week's column is words. Daisy Stella Baldwin looks at language and how we use it...
As you know, unlike Carrie Bradshaw, I have a day job. In the day job I was recently given responsibility for an internal communications project within a large company that involved lots of copywriting. “Oh yeah!” I thought, “The MA starts paying off here.” I would, for a month at least, be writing for a living…
One month later, I had stopped doing any work on my novel and was so sick of words that even reading the back of the cereal packet put me off my breakfast.
Turns out, there’s a big difference between corporate communications and creative writing.
The project I was working on was for a global company, so more than ever it was critical not to use any complex words, elaborate turns of phrase, or peculiarly British witticisms. It’s harder than it seems.
There is an entire Plain English Campaign that aims to ensure everyone has “access to clear and concise information”, and I’m a big supporter. It makes me angry to think that because of poor communication and lazy jargon, people might not understand what benefits they’re entitled to, or why their bank is charging them.
Writing to communicate important details in an accessible way is a skill, and honestly I enjoy it. I enjoy it in the same way I (secretly!) quite liked algebra. There’s a satisfaction to be found in eliminating all difficult language while still getting across the content. It’s just different to the skill of writing imaginatively to tell a story in an engaging way. With a poem or novel there’s room for multiple interpretations – the joy of creative writing is that it can provoke different feelings and hold different meanings for each reader. In contrast, the written instructions on a fire extinguisher can’t be open to interpretation; their meaning has to be immediately clear to all.
My reaction to working with words for a living worried me for a while. It felt like when I first started my English degree and spent so much time reading critically that I stopped reading for pleasure for almost the whole three years. It felt like I didn’t have the headspace for both.
In an attempt to kick-start my writer’s brain I spent Sunday browsing a second-hand bookshop and while shuffling through the shelves came across a vintage 1943 edition of Just Another Word, by Ivor Brown; a record of weird and wonderful words that the author admired. Words like "delightsome", "darkling" and "dimpsy" (west-country dialect for "twilight").
Such words would never be used in plain English. Reading them felt like an illicit thrill. A reminder that in creative writing the perfect, carefully chosen word can ring out across the page like a bell, chiming with some half-forgotten memory or unexpressed emotion.
Although, it doesn’t do to get too seduced by words – even in expressive writing it’s often better to use the simpler, shorter ones in surprising new ways – still, every so often it’s good to remember what a rich language we have at our fingertips. And to realise that words can sometimes just be fun. To quote the infinitely wise Dumbledore in his Hogwarts welcome speech:
"I would like to say a few words. And here they are: Nitwit! Blubber! Oddment! Tweak!”
– the perfect spell to shake off a hard day’s words.
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