In The Golden Notebook, Doris Lessing writes that the words “good” and “nice” don’t mean anything; they’re not words to be used in a novel. What words to do you think are overused? What are your words of habit and can you write for a week without them?
I’ve thought about that often since. I mean, about the word nice. Perhaps I mean good. Of course, they mean nothing, when you start to think about them. A good man, one says; a good woman; a nice man, a nice woman. Only in talk, of course, these are not words to use in a novel. I’d be careful not to use them.
– The Golden Notebook by Doris Lessing
A teacher recommended The Golden Notebook to me more than a decade ago. Written by Doris Lessing, The Golden Notebook centers around the life of a writer, Anna Wulf, who tries to make sense of the chaos of life by separating out her experiences into four distinct notebooks. It’s a book I’ve started more than once and despite not having finished it, this one quote has always stuck with me.
After reading Anna’s frustration with the words “good” and “nice,” I noticed a distinct uptick in the times I heard it. A friend would describe an acquaintance as a good guy or tell me she’s really nice, and I’d respond with a giggle. But that doesn’t tell me anything about them, I’d tease.
Words like good and nice are words of habit. They’re words that we’ve collectively agreed upon to convey a certain positivity while leaving out the specifics, much in the same way we’ve come to use words like epic, for example, or awkward. These words of habit do us no favors as writers.
As you look through your own writing, do you see any of your own words of habit? For me, I tend to sprinkle words like adore and excited throughout my own writing, relying on their conventional definitions to describe a certain sense of admiration or anticipation. As always, there’s a way to go deeper, to pull those words and their sentiments out of their shells and find metaphors, descriptive images, fragments of thought and speech to convey the true emotions of a moment or idea.
To challenge yourself, try taking your words of habit out of the game for a week. Replace them with stronger synonyms or, better yet, use all the other literary devices up your sleeve to blow habit out of the water. It’ll be a good exercise. Er, I mean, a distinct challenge to push yourself beyond habit and into a happy exploration of words.
Drawing by augustusswift on Flickr.