Word Play: National Scrabble Week, August 11-15

Tanis Browning-Shelp

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I was the alien in my family growing up because I didn’t like board games or cards. When cottaging, I just wanted to be left alone to read, rather than join in a game of rummoli, euchre, monopoly, or risk. And even with my love of words I could rarely be persuaded to play SCRABBLE®.

Authors choose words like builders choose bricks and siding.

You’d think that a book worm and aspiring author would be drawn to a game that plays with words! SCRABBLE® underlines the immutable fact that words do not come easily. Success in SCRABBLE® depends on word choice, which, of course, is a key component of good writing.

Authors choose words like builders choose bricks and siding. In my thirties, I read and enjoyed many a John Irving book. But it was a long-time babysitter of ours, Amanda Delaurier, who drew my attention to Irving’s excessive use of the word notwithstanding. Amanda first noticed it as a young reader because she’d never seen the word used before. She thought about what it might mean, looked it up, and even committed it to memory. But soon she noticed it popping up again and again in Irving’s writing. She started highlighting the notwithstandings in his books and was mystified to see a sea of yellow. She now finds this annoying and even boycotted the final chapter of his most recent book because of it.

Why does Irving make this choice? Is notwithstanding his favourite word? Does he consider it his signature word? Does he know that some of his readers find it off-putting? I would ask him if I could.

I myself have always written with a thesaurus at my fingertips. I wish I could come up with the best words on my own, and often wonder if using a thesaurus is cheating. But I continue to rely on it as an author’s tool and try to avoid repeating words.

Do great writers use a thesaurus? I’m not sure. One of my editors, Jennifer Latham, talks about the beauty of Barbara Kingsolver’s writing. Jennifer claims that she can open any page in a Kingsolver novel, select a paragraph, and find words of such exquisite precision that reading them makes her feel that she should give up writing because she could never measure up. I don’t know if Kingsolver uses a thesaurus, but she does admit to being a serial re-writer.

In SCRABBLE®, the reward for a good word might be a triple word score. In writing, the reward is telling a good story that pulls readers in.

I don’t know if Kingsolver uses a thesaurus, but she does admit to being a serial re-writer.

On National SCRABBLE® Week, I renew my commitment to making the best word choices possible in my own writing. And I celebrate playing with words.

Tanis Browning-Shelp’s next book—Critical—third in the Maryn O’Brien series—will be released this fall.


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Tanis Browning-Shelp lives in Ottawa, Ontario with her husband Andy, and their teen-aged son and daughter. A spirited, active family, they support one another in achieving their individual goals. That’s how Maryn O’Brien came to life.