Let me tell you a little something about my writing process. Every time I write a post I go back and read through what I’ve written out loud. This is a great editing exercise and I wish more writers would learn to self- edit in this way. If your sentence makes no sense you will figure it out before you even get to the period. Try it. It works, I promise.
One thing I notice consistently in my writing is that I overuse the word “really”. Often when I edit a post I will remove anywhere from three to ten instances of the word. I use it for emphasis. Or sometimes even just as a filler word the way you’d use “um” or “ah” in speech (or “like”, which I do all the time. I know, ok?).
Monday night in songwriting class our teacher had us do an exercise where we wrote a story and then went back over it and circled all the words we used repeatedly. We are supposed to take those words (even if it’s “the” or “and”) and use them to write a song for next week. The repeated words are the most important ones, Teach says.
I stuck my hand up. Now, normally I don’t like to put my hand up or contribute in class without being directly asked. I’m the kid in the back row who plays nerd bingo. But I’m really passionate about good messaging, and this exercise bugged me.
“Just because you use a word a whole bunch of times doesn’t mean it’s important to your message! In fact most of the time if I’m repeating a word without thinking it’s taking away from the message I’m trying to convey!”
I gave my example of overusing “really”.
“Did you ever stop and think about why you use the word really?” the teacher asked me.
“No. I just re-read the sentence, see that the word “really” is taking away from the effectiveness of all the other words, then take it out.”
“You’re missing the point. You are constantly using one word. Ask yourself why. Why that word? What does that particular word say about you as a writer? What does it say about where you are coming from?”
I walked out of class with James and Tiff and I was so frustrated. It’s not that I didn’t understand the exercise, I did. But I also know that good writing communicates a message in as few words as possible. People have short attention spans! They will give you 20 seconds, tops, before they move on to something else unless what you say really grabs them. If you have to scroll more than once to read the whole thing? Forget it. Get to the point. Obviously there are exceptions to this. For example, if you plan to write the next Great American Novel, it’s probably going to be more than 300-500 words. But generally speaking, people write way too many words for what they mean to say.
Because they are good friends, James & Tiff let me say all of this, and only slightly smirked at my righteous indignation. And then James said:
“Ok. Let me just blow your mind for a second. What if the reason you keep using ‘really’ for emphasis is that you are not confident enough in your words to let them stand on their own?”
As much as I hate to admit it, because I know it will go straight to his head, James is totally right. That is exactly why I say really all the time. To add emphasis. To make sure that my words convey my feelings properly. Of course, the other side of this is that I do go back and edit all the “reallys” out, because as soon as I read it back I can see how it actually takes away the punch of the words it qualifies. But after I got over being mad at the exercise, it did make me realize something about myself as a writer.
This class is kicking my ass you guys. It’s not just the homework. It never resolves. The teacher always wants us to peel back layers, and consistently ask ourselves why questions. He is teaching us to look for a message or meaning that is hidden subconsciously in speech, writing, songs, everyday life, all the time. You can’t just put up your hand with the right answer. No matter what you say you’ll always be asked to explain further what you mean. To get at the why. And I hate it. But I think it’s making me a better writer. Really.