Give the Gift of Words

By Rita Killer,

“The majesty and grandeur of the English language is the greatest possession we have. The noblest thoughts that ever flowed through the hearts of men are contained in its extraordinary, imaginative, and musical mixtures of sounds.”

A little over the top for purposes of writing about romance novels, I guess. But the words from the 1964 musical comedy “My Fair Lady” came to mind a few days ago when I was pleased to discover that one of my favorite writers, P.G. Wodehouse (1881 – 1975), included among his numerous talents romantic fiction.

By today’s standards his stories are more than a bit staid. To be sure there are references to sexual attraction, but they are worded so cleverly that you might have to read them two or three times to get the idea.

But, for my money, that’s no small part of what made Wodehouse such a great writer. His facility with words was not a free gift. To fully appreciate it, you have to concentrate. He didn’t make it too easy for you. You have to work for it.

Here, for example, is a short passage from a story entitled “The Best Sauce.”

“It was Eve’s practice to tell herself several times a day that she had no sentiment for Peter Rayner but dislike. She did not attempt to defend her attitude logically, but nevertheless she clung to it, and tonight when he entered the drawing room she had endeavored to convey by her manner that it was only with the greatest difficulty that she remembered him at all, and that, having accomplished that feat, she now intended to forget him again immediately.”

Now the editor in me would want to cut that paragraph down most likely by shortening the second sentence, which from a grammatical standpoint is far too long. But the writer in me – and more important – the reader in me knows that to move even a single comma would destroy a piece of brilliantly constructed writing. It would be like changing a note in a Mozart symphony. You just wouldn’t do it.

Granted, of course, Wodehouse wrote in a very different era for a very different audience. Still, if the job of a good writer is to educate (even minutely) as well as to entertain – and I believe that is part of a writer’s job – then we can all learn from the skillful ways in which the greatest writers manipulated our language.

Am I suggesting that a writer sacrifice his or her individual style to become a more skillful user of words? Under no circumstances.

But somewhere in the course of concocting the plot, setting the scene, defining the characters, and all the other steps that go into creating a novel, writers might be induced to consider not just what they are going to say, but precisely how best to say it. Most writers probably think they already do this. But it’s clear that a great many get so caught up in characterization and imagination that they forget the importance of the words themselves.

As Mark Twain observed, “The difference between the right word and almost the right word is the difference between lightning and the lightning bug.”