Clever turns of phrase

Past topics in Rhobin’s Rounds

Rhobin’s topic is: “How does wording choice develop a story’s character? How do you use and select your words?”

I didn’t quite manage to answer this question, but ended up with a question instead.

I intended to enter a short story contest in 2009. The judge was a famous author I’d never heard of, so I borrowed one of her books from the library. The result was this essay I wrote in Bobbing Around:

Two kinds of sound sequences are called jazz. There is the music that Louis Armstrong played and would approve: full of melody, toe-tapping rhythm and harmony, all with improvisation. Then there is auditory showing off: “Never mind melody or rhythm or harmony, see how fast I can make these sounds!”
Writing has the same distinction. It can scream, “Look how clever I am! Admire me!” Or it can do a job so well that you don’t even notice the words. They are the medium, not the message.

The first kind of writing tends to win the big prizes. The second kind is what people love to read.

When I come across the first kind of writing, I typically put it down after a few pages. This is not because I don’t admire the writer’s cleverness — far from it. It’s because I just can’t get into the story. After awhile, there is nothing to hold my interest. Perhaps this is a lack in me — I’ve never studied Literature above high school level.

Well, the same is true for the overwhelming majority of readers. When someone picks up a magazine or a book, they may want to be instructed, informed, entertained, or all three. There is no particular attraction to being impressed.

Prose is a tool. Its purpose is to convey a message. You may be telling a story, bringing a place to life, presenting an argument, selling — a concept, a service or some merchandise — or merely making contact, being friendly.

Either I choose a non-fiction book because I need to learn something, or fiction because I need to find a pleasant filling for some hours. Like music, the task of fiction writing is to stir the emotions. In our cultural traditions, this is done by telling a story in a way that allows the reader to identify with one or more characters. If the author is doing linguistic gymnastics, the attention will be on the language, not the story. It gets in the way.

For this reason, when I write:

  • I use the minimum number of words that will do the job.
  • I’ll say “He climbed the stairs” rather than “He ascended the stairs” — the most common available word is the best, except to avoid repetition.
  • I keep to the simplest syntax I can, again without falling into a repetitious, boring pattern of sentences.
  • I avoid repeating anything.
  • In fiction, I avoid author intrusions such as explanations.

All of this can be summarised by the motto of the Australian Army Engineers: K.I.S.S.: Keep It Simple, Stupid.

Needless to say, I didn’t bother entering the contest.

Using language that attracts attention away from content is very counterproductive. One way to correct this tendency is to imagine you are writing for an adult with the reading skills of a 12 year old. The content can be adult, but keep the language simple.

Nevertheless, all prose is poetry. Here is a selection of sentences I’ve pulled from my writing, in no particular order:

  • She had to be the sexiest-looking 42-year-old on the planet, the best that money could buy.
  • I find you beautiful, because skin has nothing to do with beauty.
  • Grief twisted her like a lemon squeezed for juice.
  • A tinkling laugh follows, a musical sound of amusement that chainsaws my heart into pieces.
  • Amy came in ten minutes later, excited. Well, more like, a great abdomen came in, attached to Amy, with Jerry also attached to her by an arm around where her waist used to be.
  • The water is so cold! Liquid ice flows into Heather’s mouth, into her lungs as she gasps from the shock of immersion in freezing fire.
  • Young women are a sweet agony, a toyshop I’ll never enter. I am a moth, forever singeing the wings of my soul, stupidly circling toward destruction.
  • When someone picks up a magazine or a book, they may want to be instructed, informed, entertained, or all three. There is no particular attraction to being impressed.

Do you think such expressions are a positive, adding to characterization, description or action, or are they a negative in that you might pause and think about the words instead of the meaning?

Leave a comment and let me know.

Then please visit the other bloggers in this round, and leave comments for them too:

Victoria Chatham

Skye Taylor

Rhobin Courtright

Rachael Kosinski

Margaret Fieland

Marci Baun

Judith Copek

Helena Fairfax

Beverley Bateman

A.J. Maguire

About Dr Bob Rich

I am a professional grandfather. My main motivation is to transform society to create a sustainable world in which my grandchildren and their grandchildren in perpetuity can have a life, and a life worth living. This means reversing environmental idiocy that's now threatening us with extinction, and replacing culture of greed and conflict with one of compassion and cooperation.
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8 Responses to Clever turns of phrase

  1. Dr Bob Rich says:

    Thank you, Helena, and for the visit.
    Yes, writing is like any sport. A champion makes it look easy.


  2. Hi Bob, you ask a really good question about why people write. And I so get what you mean about being thrown out of a story because of the wording. When readers dismiss a book as “an easy read” they often don’t appreciate just how hard it is to write a book that flows so well you can read it “easily”. Thanks for the thought-provoking post!


  3. Dr Bob Rich says:

    Skye, Rhobin, Rachael, Judy and Marci, thank you for responding.

    Clearly, we are all in agreement. This has to stop immediately!



  4. wildchild says:

    You’ve encapsulated what I don’t like about most modern literary works. It seems to me that the author is so busy trying to impress upon you how educated and erudite they are that they lose the real purpose of fictional prose (in my mind, anyway): to entertain.

    Hemingway felt that one should never use a word larger than five letters long. I was never a fan of Hemingway, but it’s possible it was the one book of his I was forced to read that turned me off of him as an author. I generally use the words that come to mind that fit the character and their situation. I don’t limit my word usage, although that may be to my detriment. I would say someone ascended the stairs, though, unless there was a particular reason to do so.



  5. judyinboston says:

    You make some good points, especially that the words should lead the reader into the story and keep him/her there. I liked your examples. They weren’t as plain Jane as you led us to believe. Nice post.


  6. I’m going to be honest, when I first started writing, I wrote to impress. I made descriptions as high-minded and intellectual as possible. I used high vocabulary. Then one day, while reading one of my stories to my little sister, she told me to stop because she couldn’t understand what was going on. The words had her stumped, and she didn’t care to hear any more, no matter how interesting the plot. After that I realized it wasn’t a contest to see how ‘obviously smart’ I could be, and made sure to write everything much more clearly and plainly. 🙂


  7. Rhobin says:

    As always an interesting take on the topic, and I agree any particular wording choice shouldn’t interrupt the reader.


  8. Skye-writer says:

    Couldn’t agree more on what pulls me INTO the story. I like descriptions, however brief, that make me “feel” the character rather than those that dazzle.


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