What You Did Not Know You Meant

by Meredith Stewart

Words are an inheritance passed down through the long story of humanity. As writers, we want to honor that inheritance but sometimes seem blocked in the effort. Words are like temperamental children: a part of us and yet not us, difficult to control and often – surprisingly – wiser than we are. Here are some thoughts about how to write words well.

The Draft
Don’t worry about words as you write your draft. Don’t fret like a penny pincher at the grocery store, anxiously rifling through coupon books and calculating total costs, wondering if she has bought the right items. In English we have three-quarters of a million words. We have borrowed or stolen them from all over the world, and we can spend them freely without ever diminishing our supply.

You are a writer. You stand before a vast ocean of words with your bucket. Fill it up. You will never dry up the ocean. Pretend that words are as interchangeable as drops of water, that you don’t have to find a satisfying one immediately. Ignore the delete button and quiet the voice that says, “Wrong word, wrong word.” Hear instead the voice that invites you to play in the crashing of waves on the shore. Feel the rush of energy, the thrill and joy as you dip in your bucket.

To revise means to “re-see.” You pause from being the writer and see through the eyes of a reader. This takes great empathy and imagination.

Start by reading the words on the page out loud and see their baldness. Do not augment with other words in your head. Rather, ask yourself how they must sound to someone who did not love them, who did not choose them as you did. Perhaps some of your words have taken you where you did not want to go and you feel the abundant ocean has betrayed you.

Do not waste time grieving the betrayal. Instead, sift your brain for synonyms, skim the dictionary, hunt through the thesaurus. Delete words. Erase whole lines and paragraphs. Free associate until you have different words from which to choose. A different word may be nearer to what you meant. Or nearer to what you did not know you meant.

Words are not darts. They never hit just one thing. They are forking paths or veins branching out into our bodies. Pay attention to the vibe of a word, to the emotion behind it, to its typical contexts and to the context in which you have placed it.

For example, iceberg may make you think of giant blocks of floating ice in cold Antarctic waters. Or it may send you to a crunchy, watery, flavorless, low-calorie food; or to Freud’s metaphor for the unconscious mind; or to an emotionally distant and harsh person. All these things and more are wrapped up in the one word. The more you pay attention to the various meanings and use them to your advantage, the stronger your writing will be.

My Lesson
This lesson came home to me many years ago when I was working on a poem called “First Memory.” Part of the poem read “a man/helped me through/the broken window/into my young uncluttered awareness.” The last word, awareness, seemed appropriate for the topic of a first memory about a car crash. It reminded me of being alert, of paying attention, of clarity, or self-consciousness. It spoke to those rare moments when we notice, and therefore retain, what is immediately around us. It comes from the word wary, which I like. A car crash as a first memory certainly suggests a reason for caution.

But little of that sense remains with the word. Now it is used in campaigns regarding social ills (as in raising awareness) and has the bitter taste of the earnest and ineffectual – none of which I wanted in the poem. Awareness was also a little clumsy as it tailgated uncluttered, another three-syllable word. It stuck out awkwardly in a poem of simple words (man, window), and I never felt quite satisfied with it.

Years later, as I was going through old poems and revising them for a collection, I showed the poem to a friend who suggested the word soul instead. This word resonated with the spiritual, with the core of being, which included so much more than just awareness. Soul took the poem beyond the theme of memory; one word made the poem about a rite of passage, a child becoming herself.

Not every word in your piece will make that much difference when you change it. But key words will – especially in poetry. It’s worth the effort to try to find better words, even if it takes years.


Meredith StewartMeredith Stewart is a teacher and writer who lives in the Lents Neighborhood of Portland. She received an MFA from the University of Nevada, Las Vegas in 2007. Her poetry has been published in The Santa Clara Review, damselfly press, Rock & Sling, VoiceCatcher6 and Relief. Her life is full of good friends and good work.