Some of you might know this about me already: I read the dictionary.
I’m sure all of you have at one point in your life consulted that heavy book of words.
It might be unconventional but, yes, I read the dictionary as a habit or a hobby, or as some people might term it, for fun. Like many other things, it is indeed fun to read the dictionary for fun, because it means no pressure or time constraints to imprint the meanings of certain words into my mind for a test or school assignment. What is even more fun is the wealth of information that enters your mind and gets recalled at a later point in time. By then, magically, you would not be able to recall where it was that you acquired that particular information, but that you did.
After years of writing for school and writing for exams and writing for school, I have come to realise that what you write is at times secondary to how you write. What distinguishes you from others is style. As Schopenhauer elegantly puts it,
Style receives its beauty from the thought expressed, while with those writers who only pretend to think it is their thoughts that are said to be fine because of their style. Style is merely the silhouette of thought; and to write in a vague or bad style means a stupid or confused mind.
– Schopenhauer on Style, Brain Pickings
The ultimate test is how to express complex ideas using precisely simple terms, because simple words can get through to more people more quickly and effectively than dense ornate writing which can only appeal to a limited audience at best.
Too many times I hear myself and friends comment that it is difficult to put something to words because there is not the right word that exists in that language (so you code-switch with another language since your audience is multilingual), because it is infinitely easier to go, “You know what I mean?” than to explicate what you mean, or because you just can’t be bothered (to even think about why you are finding it difficult to put something to words). Yet it is such a precious feeling to read back on something I have written in the past and find that it not only reminds me of the emotions and events I went through at the end, but also makes me marvel at how the sentences piece together to recall the chunks of memories I thought I had forgotten. Reading my writing reminds me of me.
Maybe we can liken it to an engine, our writing prowess. Without frequent use and proper maintenance, it gets rusty and it becomes difficult to get it running. You lose that sense of ease that comes with regular practice. You start thinking, “My handwriting looks like crap.” You turn corners anxiously, worried you are forgetting to check something in your rear view mirror, nervous about what might appear around the bend. You write two lines, cancel five words, and decide to abandon that paragraph and start a new one.
To take a few minutes to write is one thing; to write well is another. We don’t have to all write with the skill of a celebrated novelist, but we have to at least write in a way that reflects properly in the future, so that when you are old and grey and a little slow in the head, you can still reasonably understand your younger vibrant self.
In these times where the bite-size social media dominates, it becomes even more important to take more moments to compose your thoughts, not to make sure you capture as many likes as possible, but to make sure you present in time the best coherent self you can cobble together and ensure that what you write will enable your future self to remember what it was you were trying to convey.
Sometimes I run out of words and I cave in to the pressure of time, and I either post with no words or I leave them with the best line I can think of and add in some prayer in my head that my future self will remember what it was that I wanted to express. Obviously, I haven’t read the dictionary enough, because sometimes months later I would read somewhere a word and I would go check the dictionary and, damn, that was the word I wanted back in that moment when that thing happened to me.
At times, the exact opposite happens. You try to write and words come out, but they are words that feel a little off. Some are words that are more commonly used in technical manuals and newspaper articles talking about politics but you feel like maybe that big word can help make everything read better. Sometimes you get trapped in a three-line-long sentence, started out in the past tense but somehow wound up in the present tense and … what was it you were trying to say? So you get ensnared in the vines of verbose and you turn them in anyway, because that assignment was due or you wanted to clear a certain quota, or you just want to get it off your chest and embrace the clean satisfaction of the ‘Post’ button.
Next time you hit a bump in the road (yes, back to my engine analogy), take a few moments to review what you have written. Delete the words that you would never use in a conversation with a close friend and exchange them with terms that you would. Add full stops to clear up any long sentences. Read again and see if you understand yourself completely. Because if you don’t, then there is literally no point.
P.S. prolixity |prəˈlɪksɪti| noun. the use of an excess of words.