Better Writing Begins With the Humblest Word

by Nick Jaina
March 27, 2018

I would like to take a moment to celebrate the power of the most commonly used word in the English language.

At the beginning of a writing workshop I ask my students what they are there to learn, and some of them will say, "I just want to write better."

The first thing I point them to is archetypal writing. It's one way to lift your writing out of what we might call diary writing, where you're documenting only the details of a scene with no bigger meaning. This writing is valuable for emotional growth, but might not have universality to it.

We can start thinking about archetypes by looking at the word the, which is such a common and unassuming word it is almost invisible. The is a definite article, the only one we have in English. The main function of it is to signal that you are talking about a specific instance of a thing or idea that is already under discussion. When you say, "Can you feed the cat?" you are referring to an understood, agreed-upon cat. If this is ever confusing, the other side asks for clarification. "Which cat?" If you say, "Can you feed a cat?" the meaning is very different.

There is another way this word functions that is similar, but opposite in the size of its scope. Instead of being very specific, this other use can open up a wide world of understanding that can improve our writing.

This is when we invoke an archetype. When I say, "I've been on the road for years," I'm not referring to a specific highway, and I'm not referring to a physical road we've talked about before. I'm talking about the road, the archetypal road, the road of Jack Kerouac and Cormac McCarthy and whoever has informed your idea of what it means to be on the road.

To realize the power in that one little word the, try that same sentence by replacing it with the indefinite article. "I've been on a road for years."

Appreciating the is an easy first way to start seeing archetypes in the world around us. The value of archetypes is how they interact with your world, and with your cultural understanding.

In that sense, anything can become an archetype, even characters created in our own lifetimes. You could say Darth Vader has gone from being a character on a screen to symbolizing something more. If I told you my boss was acting like Darth Vader, you would know what I was getting at, even if you had never seen a Star Wars movie. There is a point when characters and places come alive and extend beyond the original text.

The beauty of archetypes is that their ambiguity allows the reader to bring their own experience to the interpretation. If you describe someone's character as that of the warrior, a reader might, depending on their cultural education, connect that to Maori or Samurai or Vikings. It brings out something in the reader. It asks for their participation.

This is the power of archetypal writing. The first exercise I ask people to do around this is to make a list of archetypes and then choose one and write about yourself as the archetype.

Don't think of it as a permanent attribute. Take it as seriously as you would take a Halloween costume. It matters to you, it connects to your personality in an important way, but it is not permanent. You take it off when you're done.

Use an archetype as a sort of literary costume. Apply the qualities of that archetype to your life, and write about it with sincerity.

"I am the soldier. I am fighting against opposing forces in the mud and rain."

"I am the clown. My role in the world is to lighten people's mood, to remind them that none of this matters."

"I am the color red. I am blushes and apples and the angry rush of blood to your temple."

This process becomes really liberating because archetypes are all around us. You can exaggerate it for humor, because humor comes out of a shared understanding. You can use archetypes to be beautiful and heart-breaking, because they point to things we all identify with.