I’ll begin with a disclaimer because chances are high this article could pass me off as an authority, which I doubt I’m. So I’ll say this from the outset: I’m not an authority on writing. I have some years of experience, but that’s about it. I still have a lot I’m learning. My insights will be like that letter one writes to their younger self reviewing their past mistakes, some of which they are even yet to outgrow.
This article must, therefore, not be taken for the gospel truth of what good writing is supposed to be because a few years from today, I might look upon these pages with shame and bemoan the atrocities I committed in writing. Atrocities that at the moment, my small eyes cannot see. Because writing is like wine. It only gets better with time. And you won’t know how bad your wine is till you taste a better one.
As a young writer, there is this tendency to use big words. You feel that it is the epitome of writing [I used a big word]. You feel it is the hallmark of writing. And so you use words that would take your mouth great pains to pronounce. You just dip your hands into the thesaurus and fork out the most massive words your hands can reach.
How does one avoid this? Simply arrange the words and grade them. Gauge them on two levels – their meaning in terms of the context and their ubiquity [that’s not a big word]. Most of the time, you will realize that the mundane, those common words will win. And it will give you a better readership. Because no one likes reading with dictionaries in their hands. Especially if they are already straining to read and offer feedback on a not-so-good piece.
It will not be easy. There is always that temptation to go for the big words. How else will people know you are reading books? The problem, though with settling for big words especially the first time you’re meeting them, before knowing them well, is that their grandiose status will perhaps be the only reason you will be choosing them. They are deceptive. Like beautiful ladies who can’t cook chapati. You become biased and turn a blind eye to your context, to what is most important.
The way one marries a beautiful girl but soon realizes good chapatis are better than a beautiful face. And so sometimes, you have to pick the average lady. You have to select that ordinary word and give it a home in your pages. Because writing is not about ostentation [There I go again]. The beautiful ladies may say, well we knew it. He wasn’t just going to choose us. He just meant to waste our time.
But as a writer, you know what you are looking for. You have to learn to ignore the gruntles of those good looking words.
Sometimes, the common is common because it’s the only way of doing things. It is the only way that has been tested and proven. The way you don’t sneeze with your nose blocked. Because that is yet to be tested. Its effects, we only know are ugly. And you don’t want to be the one showing humanity how ugly this could get. Sometimes gold is found in the common mines.
But it must also be noted that sometimes it will be inevitable using these untested words, these big words. You will have to send your readers to their dictionaries. Because English is a rich language. There is a word for almost everything conceivable. Even that pleasant smell after the rain. It has a name. Petrichor! Such times, you will have to compel your readers into their dictionaries. To look up smells. Because chances will be, up until your article, the only smell they will be aware of is aroma.
When you are sure of the context and you’re convinced it is the best, use it. Because once in a while, men chance upon beautiful ladies who can also do soft chapatis.
Using good all the time is bland. It reeks of uncreativity. And as a writer, that’s the last thing you want to be associated with. Good has been dragged so much. In the marketplaces, in commonplace performances. In boring conversations [Well, that’s good.] You don’t want to drag it into the sterling performance you wish to express. Pick great. You see, great is clean. It seats with kings and has a neat tie and a coat.
Like in those random conversations, you will realize that we sometimes use good when we actually mean bad. When we actually mean ugly.
Feedback is a good thing if looked at objectively. Most people will be very objective and show you the true position of your writing. And to accommodate feedback, you must learn to leave room for failure in your writing. Leave room for imperfection. Lest someone is going to burst your bubble with critical feedback for that article you think was so well written.
Most of the time, when a writer thinks they are there, it is only because they are still young and don’t appreciate the vastness of the pool that writing is. No writing is perfect. No writing should be seen as perfect. Maybe at some advanced stages. But mostly, there is always something that can be improved upon in every writing, especially at these budding stages. Imperfect writing is the first step to growth as a writer.
But a writer shouldn’t live on feedbacks. You must also learn to find satisfaction from appreciating your work just for what it is. Appreciating that it is the best you could do then, given your experience. Most of the time, we ask people for feedback when we already know what they are going to tell us. That our piece was great or needs some improvement. Or, when they already know what our ears are itching to hear. And so they will tell us exactly that. And then, like a naive girl who has just been told by some unambitious boy that she looks beautiful, we shall preen under these praises, these sometimes false praises. As if we lack mirrors in our closets.
Great works sell themselves. This is not to say you shouldn’t send out your links to friends and remind them to read your piece. Even beautiful ladies have to make an impression. But humans are funny creatures. They are most likely to follow your link if you tell them not to follow it. If you don’t tell them to follow it. If you just place it there and leave it. The way you can put roasted maize on the table and go back to judo flip [whatever that is] then wait to see if you will not return to an empty plate. Because men will think less of a lady who explicitly shows her interest even if she is well-mannered.
Don’t appear so desperate. People will imagine your writing isn’t good enough and that’s why you are desperately trying to sell it. Because you know what? Tesla does not advertise its cars. Elon Musk just dances and people buy those things. Spend more time working on your writing and people will soon flock to read it.
In your younger years, you will imagine that writing is a great deal. It’s not. I’m sure of certain things we can’t all do, like singing. But I believe all of us can write. Because writing is about expressing one’s thoughts and we all have ideas. Everyone can write, just from different perspectives.
Everyone has a unique voice, everyone has their way of saying the food tastes bad. Some may say it is bland — some, insipid or terrible. Of course, simply saying the food is bad is bland, but even that has its place in the vast pool of writing. Because at the end of the day, if one shall have managed to pass this information to an audience and saved someone from soiling their tongue, that will be their part.
You will think, in your younger years, that great writers are really creative people. Yes, they are creative, but just not as you imagine. To borrow from Biko, if you plug into humanity, you can never miss a story. Creativity is simply the ability to connect things. Seeing the ordinary things everyone sees but thinking what no one else has thought. And this only requires a keen eye. The kind of eye that will see a calf’s head in the featured image.
Because this whole article originated from a single question a friend asked. Upon giving him a review of their work and advising them on the need to use simpler words, the friend asked, how simple are simpler words? To which I responded:
Simply look at the thesaurus then identify the word that gives the best meaning given your context. Also, weigh the word based on ubiquity. So it’s like two scales. The winner should have it. Most of the time, mundane words will do well.
I know if he is reading this, he might feel cheated. He might feel like an innovator whose ideas have made fortunes for other people when they themselves cannot even afford a place to lay their heads.
I hope this does not make him see me as the cheat I am, making landmarks from random conversations. Writing a whole article from a single question, from the ordinary stuff.
I hope instead that this will enable him to appreciate that everything can be turned into a story. I hope he realizes that there is some gold in the common mines. And that, from time to time, there will be some ease in putting up a piece like this one. If we will plug into humanity. If we will listen more keenly and sieve through the good, the bad, and the ugly.■