Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Magic words

Once a week I spend an afternoon at a local primary school working with kids who struggle with reading. My Reading Buddies are amazing for all sorts of reasons, and it's been a delight for this former teacher to get back in school and regularly working with children again. Plus, books!

As my Reading Buddies advance, we've been tackling more non-fiction books, with Tables of Contents, and glossaries, and bold-faced words. My kids often struggle with the bold-faced words because they're usually tricky, and not the sorts of words eight-year-olds regularly encounter (sonar, nocturnal, carnivores, etc). But of course there's an art to bold-faced words. A good author uses the word, immediately defines it for the reader, then uses it frequently afterwards. So even though my kids may struggle with "sonar" the first time, and the second, by the fifth time they know exactly how to pronounce it.

I don't exactly regularly encounter bold-faced words in my daily reading. I probably haven't read a text with bold-faced words since college, maybe even high school. But while working with my Reading Buddies, I've been thinking about bold-faced words and how authors use them. And not just in non-fiction ways.

For example, take Sarah Dessen's beautiful young adult novel, The Truth about Forever. No, she doesn't literally have any bold-faced words. But she treats the word "forever" very carefully within her text. The story is about how long forever is, and how decisions we make, even seemingly responsible ones, can affect us for the rest of our lives. Instead of making the forever decisions we're expected to make, we should make the forever decisions we want to make.  So Sarah Dessen doesn't just throw around the word "forever." She introduces it carefully, then uses it judiciously, deliberately, adding layers of meaning to it each time, just as my kids' non-fiction books define and repeat "sonar."

Or take Stephen King's The Tommyknockers. The word Tommyknocker is used to describe the aliens. But at one point, the narrator explains that Tommyknockers is just another word for fear, for others, for outsiders. King uses Tommyknockers as a bold-faced word, introducing it first as a snatch of remembered childhood poetry, then returning to it again and again. It's a neat trick, as King doesn't have to waste time carefully using common words like "fear" and "others," but can use a single, unique word to convey meaning.

Used in this way, bold-faced words are like magic words, sprinkled judiciously, working as metaphors for ideas and emotions. They frequently become titles (as in both of my examples).

When I'm doing final revisions for a novel, I highlight my magic words, and then comb the text to make sure I've used them carefully, precisely. After all, if one of Sarah Dessen's characters in The Truth about Forever happened to say, "OMG, this car trip is lasting FOREVER," the word's effect could be totally ruined. I bet she kept a list of synonyms for "forever" close at hand while writing!

Do you make use of magic words? What's the magic word in your work in progress? Mine is "beautiful." Yes, a totally common word, like forever, but thankfully it has a lot of synonyms!


  1. *love* this post! Wow. So much to think about! I love the idea of highlighting your magic words, to check their usage. I'm definitely going to file that idea away for future reference. And I may have to check out Sarah Dessen's book now - your analysis has me intrigued.


  2. Not so much ‘magic words,’ but using foreign words and terms in my MG, I was mindful to avoid the need for a glossary. That’s a pet peeve of mine, and especially important when writing for the young. I’d avoid making a pleasure read turn into academic reading.
    But speaking of^, younger readers have no trouble incorporating made-up pseudo-techno speak. I imagine they deal with that as magic words.

  3. Elisabeth: Aw, thanks! And do let me know how you get on with the Sarah Dessen... I'm beginning to think of my best books of 2010, and that one's definitely a contender!

    Mirka: Foreign words and terms is a great point, another type of word that needs to be introduced and explained (and how great that you do that, so your readers don't have to rely on glossaries! I frequently only discover glossaries as I finish a book and get so frustrated I didn't know they were there). Love the idea of made-up words becoming magic words, too. JK Rowling is great for this! Ohhh, you're making me think of all sorts of new possibilites under this heading of "Magic words".

  4. Great post, Anne. I love those words used with layered meanings. You're right, they must be treated with great care.

  5. Ruth: Thanks! It's hard work, but of course a book with those layers in it is so much more fascinating (and re-readable!).

  6. I adore books that weave different levels on meaning into words. They feel so satisfying and rich. I try to do that with my own writing, though I'm not sure I'm quite at the "magic" stage. :-)

  7. Anna: I do think the "magic" can come in really small ways and words, too, that we hardly think about but do subconsciously. There might be more than you realize!


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