Words and pictures

Previously on this blog: [Words are] the least important part of a novel. Really, for most of the time you spend working on a piece of writing, words are the last things on your mind. So – and in no way contradicting this – here’s a post about the importance of words.

We all know the old saying about a picture being worth a thousand words. In children’s books that’s possibly useful: you don’t have to describe a character if there’s a picture of him/her/it if there’s an illustration right next to you. But if pictures (and covers don’t count, for some reason) aren’t an option there is another way to save yourself time and effort and that’s to pick the right word.

Let’s take an example: let’s consider the difference between ‘task’ and ‘assignment’.

First of all it’s clear that they mean just about the same thing. They’re almost synonymous and you might well use both words in a section to avoid repetition. That’s fine. But they’re not the same. First of all there’s an obvious difference in length and so sentence-rhythm will be affected. The words also come from different roots and it may be that characters favour one word over the over as a consequence of their upbringing.

But more than that: words – just about every word beyond the tiny filler-words that we barely notice – contain subconscious meaning that we’re not even aware of absorbing. But we do all the same.

So: assignment. If you’re carrying out an assignment you are telling me that you’ve been given a job by an authority who has some sort of control over you. It implies a bureaucracy; that one word creates a world around your characters that then never needs to be specifically described. Of course, in practice – and especially in longer fiction – you will actually have drawn a lot of this background. But you don’t have to. You’ve already created the associations in the reader’s mind.

Task is different. It doesn’t have those associations – although it’s not an antonym, so can still refer to a bureaucratically administered context. It refers more simply to a job (and you can consider ‘job’ or ‘chore’ in this context too), and one that has a lot more self-determination to it. If you are assigned a job then it is something direct. If you are given a task it implies a lot more self-control; you yourself determine the way it is carried out, its priority and the effort to which it is given.

The reader won’t consciously appreciate the difference between the terms; you don’t after all, stop to consider the precise meaning of each word in a novel. But it does shape the way you imagine the world, the way you build complexities without spelling out every single detail. It’s why your manuscript comes back with red pen aplenty.

Of course, all bets are off when it comes to dialogue. That’s a different matter entirely and will require a whole new blog-post at some as yet unspecified date.


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