Talk is cheap. Writing, on the other hand, costs money. And so it should, as it usually represents a much larger investment in time and thought as the author labors to craft the perfect line, or at least edit out the excess baggage that so commonly clogs our speech. Some people have the gift of improvising truly astonishing oratories, constructed of intricate subordinate clauses and inspiring turns of phrase that even the most accomplished editor would be hard-pressed to improve upon. But for most of us to even attempt such a feat would result in utter failure.
But that does not mean we have to resign ourselves to mediocrity when we set down our thoughts in writing. The reader can rightly assume that the author has time to shape and revise his prose, and so expects the written product to be of higher quality.
In this series of articles I will attempt to point out a few of the pitfalls that lie in wait for the unsuspecting traveler along the road to literary clarity. Some are harder to avoid than others, and more than a few will clash with the verbal constructions to which our ears have become accustomed. Depending on your intended audience and the particular voice you choose to exhibit, you may not want to heed all of these warnings – if, for instance, you want to come off as “folksy” or give the impression your prose is a transcript of a spoken rant – but knowing about them gives you a choice in the matter, and might still give your efforts a writing chance.
Lost in the Specifics
English is an amazing language. It can be precise enough to describe intricate medical processes and cover all the imaginable loopholes in a business contract, and yet it is littered with imprecision and words with overlapping meanings – enough to fuel a thriving black market where hilarious malapropisms and clever plays on words are traded freely.
Unfortunately, it is our comfort with this lack of precision, taken to extremes, that makes English-speakers sound like idiots. Take, for example, the confusion of the term verbal. It literally means “by way of words.” Thus, a verbal agreement is one accomplished with words (as opposed to pictographs or grunts and gestures), and that includes written words. So claiming your contract was merely verbal does not mean it wasn’t written down. The more meaningful distinction is between written and oral (which means simply “by way of the mouth”). I cringe whenever someone gets this wrong, especially when that someone is a lawyer. This kind of differentiation is her bread and butter, for crying out loud; she should know better.
Another thing to consider is the overuse of the word thing and its variants. People do this all the time, especially when speaking aloud. When the right word does not come readily to mind, or you’re in too much of a hurry to bother with wracking your brain for it, you simply substitute a non-descriptive term and get on with your story. “I saw something in the woods,” imparts a bit of mystery to the tale, and the audience hopes the coming details will provide some clues to the item’s identity.
But this has gone so far that the very non-descriptiveness of the word has come to signify an element of impressiveness all its own. We shake our heads and say, “He thinks he’s really something!” which is a lazy way to avoid actually saying what he thinks he is (a great chef, a very handsome fellow, a skilled lover, or perhaps even a tremendously clever wit). A good writer should be able to fill in that blank without even resorting to the thesaurus.
A perceptive reader would no doubt point out that I should have begun my sentence two paragraphs back with a more precise term instead of “another thing.” The list of viable alternatives might include these: example, trap, pet peeve, symptom. However, I was trying to make a point by using the very word whose overuse I was decrying. I believe they call that irony.
Which brings us to another coordinate on the field of vagueness: the elusive, yet ubiquitous, they. “You know what they say,” is a common preface to an aphorism for which there is no clear attribution, although a quick check in Bartlett’s Familiar Quotations, or even on Google, might provide the needed credit. As an expedient, you could at least narrow down the choices by saying, “According to the philosophers,” or “I think it was Shakespeare who wrote. . .”
When speaking to a friend, it may be acceptable to refer to another party as “Whatshisname” or “Whozits,” especially if the person’s identity is trivial to the story. However, when you are inscribing your grand epic on the tablets of posterity, you should make at least a token effort to pin the person down; if the name cannot be recovered, you can most certainly refer to “the white-haired lady who lives down the street” or “the freckle-faced kid who handed me my coffee.”
You may not have time to search police records for the person’s known aliases, but you should take the time to fix the character in the mind of your audience. As a matter of fact, law enforcement officers do this for their own benefit when they are unable to identify a suspect; hence, the mysterious Cigarette-Smoking Man of The X-files.
Our speech is chock-full of empty phrases. When the conversation lags and we can’t think of anything meaningful to say, or another party waits for a comment and we just want to move along, we inject such banalities as “Well, that’s that,” or “So it goes,” or “What can ya do?” We say these things to fill the empty air, hoping that someone else will contribute a tastier tidbit for the rest of the group to seize upon. But unless we are creating dialogue for one of our characters, we should avoid the temptation to pepper these gems throughout our written work.
There are exceptions, of course, as in the case of maintaining a folksy voice or engaging in a bit of word play. For the most part, though, this is just verbal fat that needs to be trimmed from the meat of the prose, lest one’s writing start to read like a 6th-grader’s attempt to meet the required word count by inserting gibberish or using a the word “really” twenty-seven times in a row to modify a single verb.
Even in the case of dialogue, some trimming can be a good idea. Bend an ear to some of the snappy exchanges in those old Tracy/Hepburn movies, and try to count how many phrases were just filler. Not many, I assure you. When you’ve only got two hours to get your character’s personality across, you can’t afford to waste a second on meaningless utterances. Unless, of course, speaking that way is an essential part of the character’s style.
Some of these empty words can impart a meaning that is not actually spoken, but may be intended. For instance, a man catching his wife in bed with his best friend might say, “Well, well,” indicating a certain bitter satisfaction in the confirmation of his suspicions.
Other empty words find service as attention getters. When you open with listen, it’s a shorthand way of saying, “Pay attention, what I’m about to tell you could be important.” Likewise, look usually means, “Here’s a different way of seeing the situation.” The phrase “by the way” is used to mark an aside, a way of interjecting something meaningful that doesn’t quite fit into the conversation itself. But it’s become such a common way of making a belated introduction that it prompts a particularly cynical reaction in me. When someone holds out his hand and says, “I’m Gary, by the way,” I often reply, “Oh? Of the New Hampshire Bytheways?” even though the response I receive is most often just a puzzled stare.
What Happens in Vagueness Stays in Vagueness
The reason we have such things as trite phrases, old sayings and worn-out clichés is that they are easy as pie to remember and apply. There are plenty of people out there who will tell you, “If it was good enough for my pappy and his pappy, then it’s good enough for me,” but shouldn’t a professional writer (or speaker) be held to a higher standard? I suppose it depends on your objective: if you just want to show your mastery of material already published, you could do a lot worse than bring up an applicable quotation for every occasion; on the other hand, if you are trying to impress people with your own unique thoughts, you should strive to come up with something more original.
Like many people, I get a kick out of those “colorful” phrases spouted by people of relatively isolated groups, be they Ozark mountain folk or Marine Corps drill sergeants. Though most of their terms and aphorisms have been passed down and passed around for generations, there are always new ones that I have not heard. I suspect that someone, somewhere within those communities, is coming up with a fresh entry to the accepted lexicon just about every day, either on purpose to get a rise out of his compatriots or in response to a remarkable event. Once this gem has circulated for a while, it will naturally become another member of the time-worn club, but you needn't worry: an even newer bit of linguistic sparkle will come along soon to take its place.
So why not generate some Technicolor word-treats of your own? Instead of regurgitating the wit and wisdom of Jed Clampett, you could try slapping a few syllables together into an entertaining sound bite and share the result with your own circle of friends. If you’re timid, just say your piece with a down-home accent, and people will assume you heard it somewhere else; you don't have to claim it as your own unless it gets the reaction you’re hoping for.
Start with something easy. Complete the sentence: “Why, you’re prettier than . . . .” Whereas Jed might say, “a mess of fried catfish,” you can try something closer to your own experience (or that of your audience), like “a handful of diamonds” (which works whether you are referring to jewelry or a poker hand), or “an angel’s halo,” or even “a flat tire on a Highway Patrol car.” Keep in mind the scene in the movie Roxanne where Steve Martin is challenged to come up with 20 original jokes about his oversized nose. Take a big breath (in Steve’s case, it would be a really big breath), put your mind in gear, and see how many “prettiers” you can invent. If only half of them are truly original, that’s ten more than you had to start with, and you are well on your way to dispensing with clichés altogether. And as a bonus, maybe you’ll have a few new pickup lines ready for your next night on the town.