Sunday, March 04, 2012

The Specific Weight of Water

I wasn’t the greatest Chemistry student in the world, but I remember one thing from the Chemistry lectures that I attended in college: water has a specific weight.

Don’t ask me to tell you the number. It’s lost in the fog of sleepless nights that I spent years ago cramming for my Chemistry exams.

But the actual number isn’t important for our discussion. What's important is that water has a specific weight.

Why do I find this fact of interest this morning?

Well, we swim in water without thinking much, if at all, about its weight, don’t we?

And we swim in words, too, without thinking much about the weight each word holds in our reader’s mind (and heart).

But words, like water, have a specific weight.

Think about a word like “air.” How does it compare in weight to a word like “lead”? How do “feathers” compare to “granite”? Or “water” to “bone”?

How can we become more aware of the weight of the words that we use to describe our characters and create our scenes and stories?

We need to understand the difference in weight between a word like “shattered” and a word like “light-hearted.”

The more specific our words, the greater the impact their weight will have on readers.

Here’s an example of specificity from Dickens’ Hard Times:
She curtseyed again, and would have blushed deeper if she could have blushed deeper than she had blushed all this time. Bitzer, after rapidly blinking at Thomas Gradgrind with both eyes at once, and so catching the light upon his quivering ends of lashes that they looked like the antennae of busy insects, put his knuckles to his freckled forehead and sat down again.
Notice the precise words that Dickens uses to create images in our mind: curtseyed, blushed, blinking, quivering, lashes, antennae, insects, knuckles, freckled, forehead.

And here’s another from Christopher Paul Curtis’ Bud, Not Buddy:
As soon as I got into the library I closed my eyes and took a deep breath. I got a whiff of the leather on all the old books, a smell that got real strong if you picked one of them up and stuck your nose real close to it when you turned the pages. Then there was the smell of the cloth that covered the brand-new books, the books that made a splitting sound when you opened them. Then I could sniff the paper, that soft, powdery, drowsy smell that comes off the pages in little puffs when you’re reading something or looking at some pictures, a kind of hypnotizing smell.
What words do you notice in this passage that convey a certain emotion and root you in the scene?

And here’s another from Jack Gantos’ Joey Pigza Swallowed the Key:
One day we were doing math drills in class and every time Mrs. Maxy asked a question, like “What’s nine times nine?” I’d raise my hand because I’m really quick at math. But each time she called on me, even though I knew the answer, I’d just blurt out, “Can I get back to you on that?” Then I’d nearly fall out of my chair from laughing. And she’d give me that white-lipped look which meant, “Settle down.” But I didn’t and kept raising my hand each time she asked a question until finally no other kid would raise their hand because they knew what was coming between me and Mrs. Maxy.
Again, can you look at this passage and select the words that help create a clear image of the scene in your mind?

Our task as writers is to find words that create the clearest of images in the minds of our readers.

We can only do this if we are conscious of the specific weight of each word and the impact that each word has on our readers.

For more on the need for specificity in writing, visit:

2 comments:

Kelly Fineman said...

Gorgeous post, Bruce - inspiring and thought-provoking and lovely.

Bruce Black said...

Kelly, you're so supportive and encouraging! It's always a treat to read your inspiring words.