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Updated: Apr 25, 2020

WRITES. It is a word that implies, first, an action. He writes. She writes. And so on. If we noun our verb, as Shakespeare was known to do on occasion, with a little imagination, sleight of hand, and the trusty homophone (words that sound the same but are spelled differently and have a different meaning) we uncover new and convenient uses of the word.

1. It implies sanction, as in a RIGHT or RIGHTS observed, a liberty granted, or better yet, a liberty entrusted, perhaps the most important we have, that is, in this context, to cultivate and exercise a voice. In an age with so many voices—striving, clammering, shaping and forwarding opinion, making noise—being reminded of this condition is a good thing, a necessary thing.

2. TO RIGHT (v.), is to "restore to a normal or upright position . . . to a correct condition or situation." As to right a ship. Concerning wordcraft, to right suggests a kind of justice in a line or a body of text, smoothness, economy, equilibrium, making the rough draft less rough, until a polish begins to appear.

3. There is also the choice of THE RIGHT WORD, as opposed to the wrong one, as many writers have argued, myself included. Gustave Flaubert referred to it as mot juste, that is, "the exact, appropriate word" (this could explain the five years it took him to write MADAME BOVARY). Lebanese Poet Kahlil Gibran sought what he referred to as the inevitable word. While word placement is not, nor can it be an exact science, it implies vigilance and deliberation in word choice. According to this model, there is “right” and there is “not right.” You must learn for yourself how to determine the rightness or wrongness of a word or a stream of words, what measures by which to measure, and so on. There are questions to ask.

When I read aloud, does a sentence stumble in my mouth, does it trip, limp, or drag itself along? How does my word choice influence the music in the line, that is, its fluidity, its step and movement? Because words are bound in community, is the politic between them agreeable, that is, do they play well together, without conflict or abrasion?

The answer to these questions and questions like them will help determine the course you take toward the refinement we all seek in a text.

One more thing. Do not confuse this theory of word choice with perfectionism, which is something very different. Perfectionism is a study in obsession, and obsession is as counterproductive in art as it is in life, particularly in relationships (and our attachment to words is a relationship). Perfectionism implies a neurotic attachment, one that loses sight of the purpose of writing. Word choice is easier than that. Or it should be. I have said this elsewhere, but, paradoxically, it takes a tremendous amount of effort for a text to appear effortless. It is a difficult illusion to achieve.

4. RITE (n.) is defined as "a custom, practice, or conventional act." As an author, you adopt habits, observe conventions, attitudes, prejudices, and the like. If not, you will. There are also customs you will think better of and abandon, those that once tried, fail to produce.

Rite is synonymous with ritual. Stephen King listens to loud rock when he writes. That doesn't work for me. If I have music playing at all, I prefer non-distracting, unstructured, ambient music, at low, almost invisible volume, just enough to charm the air about me. This is a small example, and perhaps a silly one to some, but you get the idea. Our rituals [rites], our mnemonic devices, even mild superstition all have a stake in the writing life.

After six published books, and two novels awaiting publication, there are customs I observe every time I sit down to write, but none so consistent as what I refer to fondly as the scrub, the polish. Any serious writer develops this habit, to work/groom a text until that little tuning fork in your head suggests otherwise (and it is by suggestion, not command). The trick is knowing when to stop. Otherwise, you run the risk, as Shakespeare instructed, of "tearing a passion to tatters." Overwriting empties a text of its power, douses the original fire.

All effective writing is rewriting. Once you have crafted what Anne Lamotte refers to as the "shitty first draft,” [sic] this refining stage begins. This is the part I love best, though I have a habit of polishing as I go along (not necessarily a bad habit, but it can slow progress of a draft). Your first task is to lean in and listen, to be in command, certainly, but a soft command, allowing the reins a little slack. As suggested above, effective writing is more of a cooperation. All the elements combine judiciously, drawing from the writer the method, voice, and invention a particular text will ask of her.

Each piece of writing, whatever the form, will ask different things of a writer. For me, there is something mystical about it all. With all the explaining a book is obligated to do, its creation requires something that has no explanation. I love that. I am able to shape something of value with my hands, something that in time will speak back to me in a voice it drew from me, that it summoned up, at times like a stranger's voice. I love that too. For the adventurous, there is a lot to love about wordcraft.

The rites we observe are deeply personal. We have experience and instinct, nurture and nature to thank for that. And desire, lots and lots of desire. The writing life is a life of continual self-discovery. Indeed, that is one reason we bother at all. Every blank page asks something different. It presents a new stage, a new performance, with all the psychologies, all the strengths, qualities, and all the lovely foibles that come with it, that define who we are, the good and the not so good, the known and unknown. What’s not to love?

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