Building a pyramid of the right words

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We all want our writing to sound original, a unique expression of our voice. But for most writers, the elementary step is to be understood. The late Frank Conroy, director of the Iowa Writer’s Workshop for many years, wrote a book called Dogs Bark, but the Caravan Rolls On, in which he described a useful roadmap to get the writer closer to the reader:

You write toward the Zone, where the Reader expends energy to meet you. But to do this, you must first write through three stages, from left to right:

So to master the first step, Conroy says in his book, “the writer’s words must mean what they say. Obese, fat, chubby, heavy and stout all have different meanings… Errors of meaning are quite common in lax prose, and there are more ways of making them than I can list here.”

Well, Conroy was a stern, tough writing teacher. In The Daily Iowan the headline on his obituary read “Tough love is gone.” Conroy was “a wordsmith whose ‘tough love’ teaching style and leadership helped lift the UI’s premier creative-writing program to new heights.”

We don’t specialize in tough love at The Writer’s Workshop, but we believe in the power of the pyramid at the top of this entry. So you can audition your words, once you are revising your exercises, to find the right player for each meaning. Judy Reeves’ Creative Writer’s Kit includes an exercise on this concept. Just know there’s a word out there that may improve your meaning — and let you move across the meaning-sense-clarity fundamentals, and on up the writing pyramid.

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