Editor’s Notebook: Searching for the right words

April 20, 2022 5:35 am
The Proctor Academy pond

The Proctor Academy pond in Andover. (Dana Wormald | New Hampshire Bulletin)

There is an old man standing in front of a downtown bank on a sunny Monday morning. Can you see him?

The building is a mix of red brick and white decorative columns, with a series of arched windows that wrap around the corner. The man is tall and thin, but he looks strong. He’s wearing a blue baseball cap, sunglasses, jeans, and a dark-blue sweatshirt with printing on the front. His hands are in his pockets, and his eyes are fixed on someone or something down Main Street, to the south.

I am in a second-story office, and he doesn’t know I can see him. He stands at a crosswalk, looking straight ahead, but he won’t cross. It’s been two, maybe three minutes, and I worry about the confusion he’s likely causing for drivers trained to yield to pedestrians. He’s being irresponsible, thoughtless. What is he doing? What is he waiting for?

The question is answered seconds after it is asked: He’s waiting for a woman, who could be his wife, and it now seems possible he didn’t realize he was standing at a crosswalk. She approaches from his right and says something that makes him turn. A few seconds later they cross the street together and disappear from my view past the window’s edge. 

I can’t see them anymore. Can you?

I doubt it, because my writing is flawed, imprecise. What does an “old man” look like in your mind’s eye? Is he 90 and slightly hunched? If you’re a younger reader, maybe “old man” means 50 or even 40. And what about the backdrop? If you’ve never seen the bank I’m describing, what did you imagine when I wrote “a mix of red brick and white decorative columns”? 

You and I are further limited by our shared vocabulary and experiences. I’m trying to write in a way that helps you form full images from unrelated scraps in your own memory, so the precision of my language is crucial. Your precision matters, too, because readers and writers are partners in the creation of images – so picture him, picture the bank and the street. Is your old man Black or white? Is the bank’s exterior quaint or is it falling into disrepair? Is your Main Street quiet or bustling? Does any of that matter?

Descriptive perfection may be impossible, but it is where our best writers hang the target. If they leave blank spaces for us to fill, it’s likely they did so on purpose: Stephen King knows that the best way to scare a reader is to guide them toward their own monster.

Some policymakers are also good at that – guiding you to your own monster, the places where fear, hate, and insecurity reside. That is how people come to hate others they haven’t met or condemn books they haven’t read.

Words, written and spoken, are the foundation of the lives we have built, but linguistic imprecision is pervasive. How often do we truly say what we mean and in the way we meant to say it? How many blank spaces do we leave for others to fill because we doubt our words or can’t find the right ones?

Last week, I returned to a school I attended for a couple of years in the mid-1980s – the time when I was most uncertain about my place in the world. I was there to talk with students about journalism and writing, and answer questions about both to the degree I could. They were polite and thoughtful, and their questions were the kind that people who work with words for a living like to be asked: They wanted to know about the craft.

When my time was up, the students applauded, said thank you, and filed out. Their teacher – who had been there way back when I was and earlier this month invited me to return – walked me out and we talked in the sunshine. After a bit, I headed toward the center of campus, alone, to take a photo of the pond.

It was on that path at the water’s edge, so many years ago, that I had started looking for the right words. I wonder what that kid would have said about the old man standing there on Friday afternoon, still looking.

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Dana Wormald
Dana Wormald

Dana Wormald, a lifelong resident of New Hampshire, has been a newspaper editor for more than 25 years. He began his career on the Concord Monitor’s news desk in 1995 and later spent more than a decade at the New Hampshire Union Leader. In 2014, he returned to the Monitor to serve as opinion editor, a position he held until being named editor of the Bulletin. Email: [email protected]