Searching for the perfect word

Thinking about the things I enjoy about writing is more challenging than I imagined it would be and makes me reflect on what it is I do as a writer. When I was a teenager, I loved to write and used to sit in my room and write narratives where I would be transported to other lands and to other people’s lives. One of my friends told me I needed to leave writing aside and head out to the pub with her, apparently I needed to ‘be seen out’. As a teenager I wasn’t interested and so this claim that I needed to be seen out with the rest of the pack didn’t really appeal. I stayed home bunkered down with my tales, my brand new white note books and a crisp black pen that sliced through the paper as I wrote.

Now, I think about writing differently. In my jobs as both a teacher and an academic I have to write such a diverse range of things that I have a very different relationship to writing. There are things I consider ‘writing’ and other things I don’t. I’ve never really thought that my applications for ethics, awards and grants are ‘writing’, despite the fact that the act of grant writing is quite obviously a very particular kind of writing task. Writing presentations is another thing I have not really considered ‘writing’, nor is writing reports for school students or research reports for committees.

What then do I consider writing? In my current categorization ‘writing’ is papers, my regular journal column, books, blog entries and ideas for future projects. I love these types of writing tasks and get caught up in the process of thinking about how I will link ideas together and structure my writing. It is something about the open nature of these types of writing that make them seem more like ‘proper’ writing to me – other types of writing have a pre-determined purpose and audience, sometimes with a very clear instruction that I need to fill a box with no more than 300 words. In these kinds of writing tasks I am focused on achieving a goal and sometimes feel limited by what it is I can achieve in those tasks.

In contrast, ‘proper’ writing for me is not a pre-determined path, it drops me in the forest and lets me find and write my way out. On the journey, I develop the path and I take the reader with me. It is these moments of writing that I love, the moments when I can construct a path for a reader, when I can sit quietly musing over the choice of words and over the way I want to present an idea. It is the words I love most about writing. I love the way that one word in the right context can do so much. I read a novel by Danielle Wood (The Alphabet of Light and Dark) recently and commented that the prose was so good that it made my teeth ache – sometimes words are like that, just achingly beautiful and perfect.  

So when I think about writing this is what I love, the search for words that are perfect in the right context. Words that shift, challenge, transform, trouble, soothe, agitate and guide. Words that begin with my understanding and take it further. Words that add something to the cacophony of conversation that occurs. On a rare day I find the perfect word, most days I just keep searching. 

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