Making Every Word Count

Laura Ayo

Laura Ayo

My Bible study group is reading “The Girl’s Still Got It: Take a Walk with Ruth and the God that Rocked Her World” by Liz Curtis Higgs. Higgs is well known for her series of books about women in the Bible, especially what she calls the “bad” ones. But she’s also published award-winning contemporary fiction, historical fiction and children’s literature. So if you’re tempted to stop reading this blog entry for fear of unsolicited preaching, I promise that what I’m about to say has everything to do with writing. Please stick with me.

In this particular Bible study, Higgs breaks down the book of Ruth word by word. I’m not exaggerating. Higgs doesn’t even get to Ruth 2:1 in her book until page 65. Sixty-five pages to dissect the first few hundred words of the scripture. As a journalist, I’m well versed in making every word count. When you only have a little bit of space to tell a complete, balanced and accurate story, you get very good at word choice, writing tight and getting to your point as quickly as possible. You study each word, especially when your first draft runs past the allotted space you’re given by an editor, and ask yourself, “Do I really need this word?” But Higgs takes it to another level while analyzing the book of Ruth, and I’ve probably learned as much about writing and making every word count from participating in this study as I have about Ruth’s story.

For starters, Higgs singles out words or phrases that have deep, layered meaning within the scripture. These words give readers hints and insights, likely without them even realizing it. After all, does anyone really stop to consider what the word “but” means when they see it in a sentence? Higgs does, as well as the words “now” and “then” and “her” and the phrases “as it turned out” and “one day.” Each reveals something to the reader. Each serves a purpose in moving the story forward or holding a reader’s attention, sometimes both. Thanks to Higgs, I now look at conjunctions, articles and transitions as the literary power tools that they truly are.

She also pays close attention to the role vague descriptions play in informing the reader. Sometimes, the absence of information speaks volumes. Other times, it allows the reader to imagine things for themselves. After reading Higgs’ words, I now realize I didn’t need the names of people, or their ages, or their detailed back stories to stay invested in the story or care about the characters. The story didn’t need those things to keep me reading. Having too much information may have even distracted me from Ruth’s plight. I don’t know that I appreciated that until Higgs spelled it out for me.

Higgs also helped me make sense of something I’ve struggled with on my journey to write fiction. She pointed out fairly early in her study of Ruth that important pieces of information are often shared in dramatic reveals at the end of scenes. The journalist in me immediately thought, “Haven’t you ever heard of the inverted pyramid style of writing?” You always put the most important information first and save the back story for the end. That way, if your readers lose interest in the story or refuse to stay with you when you jump the story from one page to another page, they’ve at least received the most important information in the first few paragraphs.

Then the fiction writer in me stepped up. Good fiction writing, like good journalism, grabs a reader from the get-go. That’s the point of a headline, as well as the first few pages of a novel. And I realized that just like Ruth saved the best for last, I tend to end the chapters I’m writing with a twist, the unexpected, or something that compels my readers to turn the page. What Higgs helped me realize are that these dramatic reveals needn’t be earth-shattering. In one case in the book of Ruth, the reveal was simply the name of the person who would become Ruth’s love interest. Thanks to Higgs (and Ruth), I’ll work those subtle tension builders and character revelations into the ends of my sentences, too. If I do it right, my readers will know something significant is coming as the story unfolds. If I do it skillfully, they won’t care that they don’t know what that significant something will be. Just the promise that it’s coming will hopefully keep them turning the pages.

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