As a writer, you have a lot of tools. But it all comes down to the words you use.
As I go through life, as a reader, as a writer, as a student, and just living my life, I collect words. I experience new words and old favorites. I come across words I hate and words I love. Some words I enjoy for the pure sounds they create. Others I enjoy for their meaning, their uplifting significance, or their strange nuances. I dislike words for the same reason: Some just feel clunky and others carry horrid meanings that are best left in the dictionary.
We get these words from reading, of course. I have a t-shirt that was inspired by Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time series, celebrating the Brown (or studious) Ajah (magic group) with the words: “You say ‘bookworm’ like it’s a bad thing.” As a writer, you need to be a bookworm, but books are not enough. Read poetry, short stories, and puns. Read blog posts, Facebook statuses, and tweets. Read magazines, newspapers, and pamphlets. Read the advertisements on the products you buy. Read billboards, newsletters, and random flyers posted in the hallways you walk down. Feel how others use words to communicate. Experience the way others use words.
Reading a variety of written material is not enough. Read quietly in your mind. Read aloud to yourself. Read aloud to others. Read aloud to the wind. Read aloud from a stage, even it’s a stage you make yourself in your living room.
Reading is still not enough. You need to talk. You need to talk to other people. Talk to your family and friends. Talk to strangers. Talk to yourself. More than that, you need to listen. Listen to how different people talk. Listen to the things people say and the way they say them. What makes a teenager sound so different from a college graduate? What makes a three-year-old sound different from a five-year-old? What makes an Australian sound different from a Brit or an American or a Canadian? It’s more than accent, vocabulary, slang, or any of the ingredients we’re so often told to study. How they string their words together, the meanings they intend, how the meaning is conveyed are all factors.
Reading, talking, and listening are not enough. You need to experience life and grasp for the words necessary to capture it. How does a vase of flowers go from a bright bouquet full of fragrant life to a fluttering of petal-shaped tears? What happens to the flora and fauna that surrounds you as spring becomes summer, as summer turns to fall, as fall descends into winter, and as winter gives way back to spring? What happens to the weather? What happens to people as they move through the seasons? How do their habits change?
Watch, experience, read, speak, listen—live! And write about it all, even if you only write in your head.
As a mother, I often find myself telling my youngest son, who has autism, to “Use your words.” We all need to do that, us writers especially. We need to use our words. We need to practice them, collect them, play with them, discard them, and rediscover them. Our words are our most basic tools. And we need a lot of them to capture the world we know!