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Five Lessons For Writers From Words With Friends

Words With FriendsLike bazillions of others, I’m quite taken with the don’t-call-it-Scrabble social crossword game Words With Friends (I’m mwsmedia there — let’s play!) If you understand how to play Scrabble, you understand Words With Friends. Like its board game inspiration, Words With Friends requires more than just a good grasp of vocabulary and a fair dose of luck. There’s a strategic element to the best game play. Gradually, I’ve come to see that the best practices for playing Words With Friends are also applicable for writing.

Here are the top five lessons for writers I’ve discovered playing Words With Friends:

Don’t Go With Your First Idea

Sometimes it’s too easy: the word is right there, perhaps even literally spelled out, ready to be played. There’s a spot for it on the board, plain as the nose on your face. The points you’ll get are pretty good, too. Why not use it?

I’ll tell you why. You have seven letters. So what if the first three are “z – o – n” and there ‘s an “e” open on the board? Move your letter tiles around. See what else is hidden in there. Use your imagination. Look at the board… are there opportunities lurking beyond the range of the obvious and would be worth much more than your first choice?

Going with the first idea for a story, scene or character motivation is a strong temptation… because people are lazy. We hate to spend more energy than required to achieve the minimally acceptable result — it’s a survival trait left over from our days dodging lions in the tall grass, and it’s unnecessary today. Take a risk. Look beyond. Invest the energy to push beyond the initial output of your imagination, and you just might find something revelatory lurking in your subconscious, just waiting to lift your work above the safe and the mundane.

A Well-Placed Small Word May Be Worth More Than a Long One

In Words With Friends, you might find that it’s possible to use nearly all your letters to form a nice, board-dominating word. It’s going to look great up there… except it’s only worth seven points. Don’t forget the lesson we just learned! Look beyond. You’ve got three letters that would fit like stones in a mosaic to create not one, not two, but four words by playing off of tiles already in place. You’re headed for double-digit scoring, my friend!

Go for the high score in your writing life, too. The best word for the job is the one that communicates what you want to say to the largest audience possible. This advice is similar to Mr. Orwell’s Second Rule: “Never use a long word where a short one will do.” At the risk of presuming, I think George was saying the reader doesn’t need you to impress them with your Brobdingnagian vocabulary (see what I did there?) Rather, it’s more important to communicate with clarity and concision. Your readers will thank you by reading more of your perfectly selected words. Everybody wins!

Use Strategy And Planning To Avoid Working Yourself Into A Corner

It’s the moment in Words With Friends that frustrates me the most: the realization that you and your opponent have, very likely as a result of going with the most obvious choice (see above!) and building too readily off of each other’s last move (see below!), crammed the whole game into one corner of the board and there are two dozen tiles left in play. The rest of the game is going to be a grudging struggle to find places to put your letters within that crowded triangle until you’re both forced to spend your turns swapping letters and passing. Might as well start over… but that means someone is going to have to concede an early defeat! Your Words With Friends session has just turned into a game of chicken. Boo! No fun!

You and your opponent will have a better time if you keep an eye on the whole board and on the consequences your decisions will have as the game progresses. Just like your writing will benefit from some planning. strategy, and consideration in advance.

Writing means planning and strategy. Even you seat-of-the-pants writers strategize and plan, so don’t give me that look. You just do your strategizing and planning after you’ve written your first draft. In Words With Friends, you can’t go back and fix things… and in your writing, you’ll spend less time on your second draft if you think about how things are turning out in the first. Have your story structure, your scenes, your theme and your characters firmly in mind, work deliberately and with the whole work in mind, and you won’t find yourself written into a corner or, worst of all, forced to concede the defeat of your story.

Building Off The Last Move Is Not Necessarily The Best Move For You

In Words With Friends, your opponent’s previous move is highlighted, so it’s only natural that your eye goes there first when you’re thinking about where to place your own letters. Like the problem of the first lesson, it’s likewise a result of our inherited pattern-seeking primate behavior.

Fight it! Look around the board — look at the unplayed, open spaces with all those bonus-point tiles just waiting for your letters. Surely there’s something better than simply adding “d” to your opponent’s “move?”

In your writing life, it’s natural for your attention to be drawn to the latest thing that seems to be working for your peers. If zombie historical romances (um, ew…) are making a mint for your formerly impoverished, former writing group partner, maybe you should get hopping on your Dickens / Romero mashup “Grave Expectations” and cash in, by gum! Never mind that you can’t stand zombies, pastiche or the Victorian era — it’s ripe for the picking!

Seriously, just… don’t. Even in this age of accelerated publishing schedules, direct-to-Kindle self-publishing and meme-inspired investments, chasing a trend solely because you think it’s going to work to your advantage is ultimately as fulfilling as a dog chasing a car. As a writer, an artist, a human being, you’re better served by pursuing your own passion and your own dreams. Culture is better served by the addition of your unique perspective and vision, too… and that’s perhaps even more important.

Make Your Words Serve Double, Or Even Triple, Duty Whenever Possible

Just like in Scrabble, some places are worth more than others on the Words With Friends board. Double and triple letters, double and triple words… managing to land a word across a combination of both multiple letter and multiple word squares can crush your opponent in a single round. Doing this while creating multiple words with your tiles can irreversibly change the course of the game. Without disregarding the other lessons, it’s in your best interest to do this whenever you can if you want to win.

Writing is more than putting the right words in the right order. Just as dialogue should serve multiple purposes — advancing the story, reflecting theme, enriching character, driving conflict and so on — so should the words you string together. You have total control over the words you use (an advantage writing has over playing Words With Friends!) so why not use them to achieve maximum impact?

Don’t just describe the couch… tell us the color of the upholstery, and make sure that color tells us something about the owner of the couch, or connects symbolically to other elements of the tale, or, heck, both! We all know that the gun in the first act has to go off in the third. Don’t be afraid to extend that truth to every element of your writing.

I’m not advocating that everything you write has to be laden with hidden meanings. Rather, think of your work like an impressionist painting, where ever splash of color and every light source contributes to the overall mood and meaning of the piece as a whole. The words are there. Use them!

What Have You Learned From Words With Friends

Have you picked up any lessons on writing, or another creative endeavor, from playing Words With Friends? Share your observations, or your thoughts on mine, in the comments!

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  • Working on my 4th book but first fiction…motivated after reading through your site. Well done.

    • A
      Matthew Selznick

      Wonderful! Was there anything in particular about “Five Lessons For Writers From Words With Friends” that lit the fire? How? I’d love to know, and others might benefit, too.

  • B. Christopher

    This posting comes at an extremely beneficial time for me. I’ve been an aspiring writer for years. This, of course, means I’ve been doing allot of lip service to the aspect of having ideas for stories and very little writing. However recently, I’ve finally sat down to begin plotting out several of the ideas that have been rattling inside my head for so long. And, as the Fates smile on the budding on my endeavors, this blog post catches my eye to remind me of the fundamentals of writing. With the Fates’ help, these core principles of writing, and the corralling of some cats, perhaps I can finely finish a few of these projects.

    Thank you for the timely nudge and your incredible works.

    • A
      Matthew Selznick

      You’re welcome! Best of luck getting started, and I’m glad the lessons of Words With Friends struck a chord for you.

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