Writers Who Love Words Too Much

There’s a major myth out there I've been dying to take a shot at because it does so damn much damage. When a student mentioned it to me again yesterday, lamenting the fact that just about every writing course she's ever taken has fallen prey to it, I figured hey, there's no time like the present. Here's the myth: Being a good writer means writing well, which translates to having a way with words.

And so writing courses, writing groups and MFA programs concentrate on the art of writing – which, dare I say something really incendiary – is like getting all dressed up with nowhere to go. The words leap off the page, but the story just sits there.

Because being a good writer isn’t about words. It's about story, and being able to use those words to tell one.

After all, words are empty vessels. They have to be supplied with meaning. And that meaning comes solely from the story they’re telling, so each word - first and foremost - must be essential to the story itself. That’s why the best writers can use the plainest words to convey the deepest, most searing points. Want an example? How about the six-word story famously (and perhaps apocryphally) attributed to Hemingway himself:

For sale: Baby shoes. Never worn.

The story comes first. The words come second. Then, and only then, does having a way with words matter. Because unless you know how to harness those words – the vivid images, the perfect metaphors, the well-honed characters, the pitch perfect dialogue – to a story, who cares?

So why isn’t story taught in and of itself? I think there are three reasons.

1.    Story is often mistaken for story structure (it’s not), which sounds mechanical and formulaic, and therefore something that stunts creativity.

2.    Writing teachers are often very accomplished novelists and screenwriters themselves, with such an intuitive grasp of story, that they’ve never had to deconstruct it, so they can’t teach it.

3.    The mistaken belief that good writing begets story, rather than the other way around.

What do you think?