Monday, November 25, 2013

Good/Bad/Ugly: Fictional Vehicle Design

NOTE: I am planning on making this a regular feature on ArtWords.  In between the other posts, I will pass judgment on designs that others have made in the entertainment or publishing fields.  And why not? My design decisions are judged every day, often by people who have no qualifications whatsoever. In most instances – especially the negative reviews – I have found a kernel or two of useful information that somewhere down the line resulted in concepts that are more original, more practical or more in tune with the project’s goals. Perhaps some other designer will read what I have to say and it will have a positive effect on his or her work, too.

Fictional Vehicle Designs

What makes for a good design?  In my mind, it is a tasteful blend of aesthetics and practicality, of form married to function.  Even in the realm of fiction (especially science fiction), a well-designed item needs to at least appear to be functional.  First and foremost, it has to look like it could do the job it’s supposed to do.  For instance, unless you have indicated that there are wondrous dimensional forces at your hero’s disposal, it just will not do to have his bazooka-sized weapon fold up and slip into his pocket; any blaster that slight would have to be made up mostly of empty space, which really cuts into the impression of heft that you were trying to get across by making it big.  If your spacecraft is supposed to be able to dart away instantly in any direction, it should not have jet engines pointing out the back because that would mean it has to turn around and aim them first.

    Bad design, on the other hand, is pretty easy to point out because it usually stems from a problem with the item’s ability to function – or at least, the designer failed to think the matter through.  Superhero costumes, for example, are skin-tight because it’s easier to draw them that way, and because they really show off the body’s contours. But wouldn’t it be nice to have some pockets?  At least Batman has a utility belt!

    Once you have the function part figured out, you can go to town on the aesthetics.  You still have to pay attention to the piece’s workability, but there is plenty of room to doll it up so that it fits in with its fictional setting, be that a world of the far future influenced by alien technology, or a steampunk ambience straight out of Jules Verne.  And here’s where things tend to get ugly.

    Ugliness, in this sense, arises primarily from a failure to keep in mind the big picture.  Your story calls for a sleek vehicle capable of great speed; the last thing you want to do is make it look clunky, with the aerodynamics of a cardboard box.  Ironically, a group of real-life designers and engineers got together and produced the Scion Cube.  If my boy got a Matchbox car like that for Christmas, I think he’d rather play with the package it came in. 

    Another thing to keep in mind is the intangible quantity that I like to call “the coolness factor.”  You might not be able to put your finger on it, but there’s just something about the way the different parts come together in a pleasing shape that makes you want to caress its (usually) glossy surface. 

    Let’s see how this applies to fictional vehicles.

 My all-time favorite in this category is the venerable Starship Enterprise.  In its first televised incarnation, the arrangement of three tubes and a disk was so outlandish that it soon became the touchstone for just about any SF artist who wanted to project earth technology into the far future.

    The producer’s imperative that it always move as if it were a ship at sea stems from Gene Roddenberry’s concept of Captain Kirk as a futuristic Horatio Hornblower, and for me the analogy comes through in the lines of the ship itself.  The twin nacelles rise like a galleon’s quarterdeck above the mid-deck (the Engineering section) and the forecastle (the saucer).  Some would say that the thrust of those engine nacelles, vertically off-center as they are, would cause the ship to pitch forward into a somersault. But who is to say what counterbalancing forces are generated from the warp core located in Engineering?  A disk doesn’t make all that much sense, either, unless it has to spin for centrifugal gravity, yet in the Star Trek universe, antigravity is already a fact of life.  So Matt Jeffries, et al., dispensed with such practical trivialities and concentrated on the coolness factor.

    The result is an iconic design that has endured through many revisions.  My favorite is the one depicted here, from Star Trek: the Motion Picture, because it retains the same basic form of the original, but with less rocket-like nacelles.

©1979 Paramount Pictures

    Another example of coolness trumping practicality is the latest iteration of the Fantasticar, from The Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer.  The sleek curves of this beauty make me want to forget all about how the turbofans don’t seem to have any air intakes.  What is especially cool about this souped-up family car is the way it can separate into three vehicles, one for each of the non-flying team members to pilot, as if a bomber were to suddenly become a whole squadron of fighters.  I rather doubt that a Chrysler hemi would be an appropriate power plant for this kind of vehicle, but it did make for a cute bit of product placement in the movie.

©2007 20th Century Fox

    Captain Nemo’s Nautilus from the old Disney movie 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea is a classic example of steampunk before there even was such a genre. Nemo was way ahead of his time (know what I mean, Verne?), having devised an electric-powered submarine in an era when most ocean-going vessels were still powered by the wind.  The exterior lines are clearly an industrial-age take on some kind of fish (an alligator gar?), complete with a big, bubble-like viewing window and a hardy steel ram for skewering surface vessels.  Granted, this prop was designed at a time when submarines were fairly commonplace, but that’s what steampunk is all about: re-imagining modern technology in a way that could, possibly, have been produced in the age of the iron horse.

©1954 Walt Disney Studios

    If you prefer your submarines with a sleeker, more modern aesthetic, you could do a lot worse than start with a sports car. In the film The Spy Who Loved Me, James Bond’s white Lotus Esprit gets chased off a dock to plunge into the ocean, where its most amazing capability is soon put into play: a row of propellers and rudders replaces the rear bumper, the wheels retract to allow for the extension of bow and stern planes, a periscope rises from the rooftop, and the dashboard rotates to reveal a more nautical sonar display.  The sharp edges and streamlined slopes of the Esprit make it a great choice for such a dual-purpose vehicle, and as an extra bonus, the thing actually worked!  Alas, it was not exactly airtight, requiring scuba divers to pilot it for the underwater shots (which probably explains the louvers that almost totally obscure the interior of the car).  Maybe that’s why Bond was able to roll down his window when he got to shore and toss a fish out onto the beach!

©1977 United Artists

    Batman has had a lot of signature cars, but the best of the bunch is the Tumbler from Batman Begins.  For one thing, it’s not a car at all, but a military vehicle repurposed for urban tactics.  It’s got plenty of armor plates, several of which can be angled to augment the beast’s aerodynamics.  Which brings up another of its cool innovations: having been designed to leap over broad waterways in a single bound, the Tumbler actually uses its afterburners for a (somewhat) believable purpose, making it capable of hopping from highway ramps to rooftops and over lots of other obstacles that the TV version (stylish as it was) just couldn’t hope to conquer.  It has muscular tires, the front pair of which is so close together that the thing could almost be called a trike. As it turns out, that’s a good thing, because in The Dark Knight, one of these wheels is shown to be the leading element of a rather unique motorcycle that springs forth from the wrecked shell of the Tumbler so that Batman can carry on with his caped crusade.  The Tumbler is a more serious Batmobile for a more violent time, and although it’s not exactly svelte, it certainly appears to be up to the task of chasing ruthless criminals.

©2005 Warner Bros. Pictures

    For a badly designed street car, you need look no further than Captain Nemo’s over-decorated runabout from the movie The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen.  Aside from all the silvery filigree, there is the problem of an internal combustion engine in a world where there are no oil refineries or gas stations yet.  And what purpose could that extra pair of front wheels possibly serve?  Any advantage gained in additional traction (assuming this is a front-wheel-drive model) would likely be offset by the fact that a third axle up front does not help your car to steer.  In fact, it would be just the opposite, a situation made even worse by the car’s extended hood.

©2003 20th Century Fox     

    But this version of Nemo gets it even more wrong in the design of his submarine.  The scimitar shape of the “new” Nautilus would probably be more streamlined if it weren’t for all those drag-inducing sculptures along its sides and conning tower.  But the icing on the cake of absurdity is the Nautiloid exploration pod.  Apparently, this is what the bubble window on the sub’s side is all about: it’s able to detach itself and go off merrily on its own, though one would think that would leave a big hole in the side of the hull -- about as useful as a screen door on a submarine, as the old joke goes.  But wait, it gets worse!  The pod’s method of propulsion is a spinning saw blade along one side that presumably acts as a sort of paddlewheel so the thing can roll across the surface of the water.  Such a device might just work if there were two of these blades, one on each side of the pod, but since there’s only the one, it could not help but topple over and churn like a crazy top.  Not exactly smooth sailing!

    At least these designers were trying to be original.  I can’t say the same for the perpetrators of the movie Wing Commander, the script of which blatantly steals naval battle tactics from the WWII films Midway and The Enemy Below, not to mention (especially in the climactic ship-to-ship broadside) every pirate movie ever made.  The derivative design of the space-borne Rapier fighters carries this far, far beyond the concept of homage.  Not only do they take off and land from the deck of the battle cruiser like planes from an aircraft carrier, the ships themselves are little more than F4U Corsairs with their wings chopped off and a couple of rocket engines bolted on just behind the cockpits (Wikipedia claims that the Rapiers were actually built from scrapped fuselages of British Electric Lightning jet fighters, but the F4U is a much closer fit, both in style and in the way they were used on carriers).  No wonder the heroes were having such a tough time of it – they were combating aliens, using 1940s technology!

                                                                   ©1998-2010 Wing Commander CIC     

   Now, for a design that just wasn’t thought all the way through, I think Wonder Woman’s invisible jet plane takes the dubious prize.  The idea of invisibility, though implausible, at least makes sense as a means of sneaking around unseen. But when the pilot of the plane is clearly visible through the fuselage, is it really getting the job done?  Don’t get me wrong – I’m as happy as the next guy to see an Amazon in a tight outfit zooming around in the sky, but that’s just the kind of thing that tends to draw attention.  I definitely hope that, if Wonder Woman ever makes it onscreen again, her vehicle will be described as having some sort of stealth capability, perhaps with the power to bend light rays around itself, and thus our heroine will be hidden as well.  On the other hand, if she’s traded her costume for an invisible flight suit, then I guess the see-through airplane would be okay. 

 ©1975 ABC Television

     Let’s go back to the Batmobile, only this time I’m talking about the long, black lump of 1930s streamlining that the hero drove in Tim Burton’s 1989 installment of the film franchise.  Apparently the designer was attempting to play up the turbojet afterburner by contouring the hood as if it was vacu-formed over the nose cone of a rocket.  While it certainly looks distinctive, this near missile causes me to wonder where the rest of the booster engine fits in with relation to the cockpit.  One would assume this is a two-seater, if only because the turbo shaft would have to be in the center. But wouldn’t that completely cut the passenger off from the driver? And imagine the unbearable heat all that jet fuel would produce, burning right next to your shoulder! 

©1989 Warner Bros. Pictures

    Beauty is only skin deep, they say, but ugly goes all the way to the bone. Take the spaceships in the movie Dune, for example.  They are tapered spindles with squarish access modules in the middle.  Now, spindles and cylinders are proven shapes for slipping through planetary atmospheres, and so have long been the body-style of choice for SF vehicles.  Even standing still, they suggest speed and motion, their long, curving lines aspiring to pierce the stratosphere like a needle through a layer of silk.  

    But in the universe of Dune, the needle is expected to attack the ether sideways, not sharp-end-first.  It’s original, I will admit, and I realize that in the vacuum of space, streamlining is not such a big deal anyway.  But this particular concept works against not only the audience’s expectations (as was surely intended), but against our almost innate sense of speed and power, bred into us from the time the first spear was lobbed against the flanks of a wooly mammoth.  It makes me ask why the things are spindle-shaped in the first place; why cram everything into tapering cylinders when a much roomier alternative – say, a sphere or a cube – might do just as well?  It certainly wouldn’t look any uglier.  Just ask the Borg.

©1984 Universal Pictures

    This does, however, point up one of the problems in fictional spaceship design.  It is increasingly difficult to come up with an original silhouette in the wake of so many prior explorations along those lines.  After Star Trek came along, everyone was trying various combinations of disks and tubes; then Star Wars blasted onto the scene and virtually obliterated the envelope.  Suddenly, a spaceship could be any shape you wanted, as long as there was a cockpit and an engine nozzle (or two, or however many).  Fins were optional, no matter that they were useless in a vacuum.  So LucasFilms brought us some pretty cool ships: Imperial cruisers shaped like arrowheads (especially the Emperor’s flagship), the horse-shoe shaped Milennium Falcon, and a spherical Death Star.  Not quite so inspired, but still serviceable, were Luke’s jet-fighterish X-wing and the run-of-the-mill TIE fighter, which basically sandwiches the ordinary day-job pilot between two panels of his office cubicle.  

    However, the production team totally fell down on the job when they dreamed up bounty hunter Boba Fett’s ship.  Designer Nilo Rodis-Jamero has said he was inspired by a radar dish, but that does not explain why the thing looks like a flying door handle.  And its flight mechanics seem to have taken the worst idea of the Dune universe and made it even more nonsensical: the ship takes off and lands from a position with its flat side down, then realigns to fly along its transverse axis, like a vampire rising stiffly from his coffin to glide along in a standup position.  Once again, our instinctual preference is for it to skim along with its flat side down.  Not only would it be more streamlined and less complicated for taking off and landing, but maybe it could iron out a few wrinkles in the terrain while it’s at it.    

©1983 20th Century Fox            

    For many years, I had been longing to see Edgar Rice Burroughs’s A Princess of Mars brought to the silver screen, and finally it seemed that special effects were ready for the challenge.  Unfortunately, Disney’s big-budget feature John Carter fell woefully short of the mark.  One of the reasons, in my opinion, was the design of the Barsoomian air vessels.  Led on by Frank Frazetta’s gorgeous illustrations in my treasured hard-bound volumes of the series, I was expecting some stately, ornate airborne versions of Cleopatra’s barge.  In the books, these things did not fly as a result of aerodynamic lift or huge bags of hydrogen, but were held aloft instead by some mysterious ray that the Martian scientists had mastered long ago.

    So we had a chance to see grand ships of the sky, with open decks and perhaps a different motif expressing the identity of each royal family.  Instead, we got these giant bird/dragonfly/B-25 hybrids that make no sense at all.  Their wings look like someone was trying to piece together a turkey vulture but ran out of feathers early on; there is not enough surface area to actually work like a wing, and yet way too much for a ship that stays in the air by other, more elegant, means. 

    I can imagine the producers wanting to avoid copyright infringement with Frazetta over his concepts (but really, wouldn’t it have been worth it to toss the man a bone and sign him on as a design consultant?); however, it would not have taken a great deal of imagination to create a different look for the aircraft that still followed Mr. Burroughs’s description.  After all, there is a whole lot of difference between a Chinese junk and a Spanish galleon, and yet they are still both wooden sailing vessels. 

©2012 Walt Disney Studios

    I could go on and on.  Like a shopping cart in the LuthorCorp parking lot, I’ve barely scratched the surface of fictional vehicles. I’m sure everyone has his favorites, as well as his pet peeves.  I can even think of a few that, were it not for one silly detail, would have landed firmly in the Good column (Black Beauty from the film The Green Hornet comes to mind, with its absolutely ridiculous phonograph hi-fi in the back seat. How do you keep the needle from skipping all over the records while driving like a maniac in a raging street brawl?).  But unless your goal is to drive your audience away, you would do well to remember these fundamentals when designing your hero’s futuristic chariot:
           .      Make it believable.
2         .       Make sure it meets your story’s objectives.
3         .       Make it cool.

    Pay attention to these principles, and chances are you will have something that everybody wants to take out for a spin.  

Tuesday, October 15, 2013

The Wrong Way to Write

8 Common Mistakes That Can Make Your Copy Appear Amateurish

“Amateur Writer” just wouldn’t look good on a business card.  And yet, if you’re not taking your craft seriously, you might as well get a batch printed up because that’s the message you’re sending out.  No doubt there are successful clients and publishers who can’t tell good writing from bathroom graffiti, but if you have your sights set on a more discerning audience, you will have to prove to them that you are the real deal.  The marketplace is crowded with would-be Wordsworths, and getting more so every day. Why give your prospects even one more reason to look elsewhere?
     Pretending it doesn’t matter is just a lame excuse for not making the effort to find a better way.  So if you are motivated to be accepted as a professional, here are eight significant errors that you should try to avoid, along with some possible remedies. Give them some thought, and chances are you will be able to come up with even better ones.

1.      1. Relying too much on clich├ęs and trite expressions.  Television journalists are almost universally guilty of this, especially at the local level.  If there’s a story that involves a chimpanzee, the reporter seems compelled to observe that someone has “gone ape” or is involved in “monkey business.” If it’s about a canine, then the whole place has “gone to the dogs.” Only those people who laugh at the same joke over and over again – or have never watched a newscast before – would think this is clever writing.  At best, it’s a shorthand way of saying “there’s a dog in this story, and we’re not expecting you to take it too seriously.”        But couldn’t there be a more original way to introduce such a segment? How about switching the two tropes out: “Downtown Millville has apparently gone to the – apes?” The wording might be just enough of a surprise to hook your audience. But you could do better.  A little brainstorming would probably yield a few riffs on evolution, the 800-lb gorilla, Planet of the Apes (plenty of usable quotes there), and so on.  The idea would be to twist them or use them in a way that you haven’t seen before. Come up with your own way of expressing the idea, and who knows?  Maybe your turn of phrase will become part of the common vernacular, and someday news anchors will be wearing it out, too.

2.      2. Using out-of-date expressions.  This crime, also perpetrated by TV journalists, is even harder to avoid for the simple reason that our language is constantly evolving and what is in vogue today may be merely a shadow of a memory tomorrow. The trick is to stop using a popular expression once it’s past its expiration date.  Just because you are talking about something in outer space does not mean you have to describe it as “out of this world.” These four words came together back when the idea of space travel really had a hold on public’s imagination, and there was no better way to exhibit ecstatic awe than to call forth images of the infinite, unexplored heavens.
          But really, how long has it been since you heard anyone refer this way to something that was not space-related? It’s as dated as “neat-o” and “the cat’s pajamas.” Given the vastness of the cosmos, it should not be too hard to conjure up something new, and perhaps more descriptive of an extra-terrestrial experience.  You decide which sounds better: “The new StarBlast ride is out of this world!” or “StarBlast takes you from the edge of your seat to the edge of the Universe.” With a little bit of thought, you can probably do much better than this -- and all without a single reference to probes of Uranus (see No. 7 below).

3.      3. Not checking your facts. This is usually a matter of laziness or haste, but it is inexcusable either way.  Believe it or not, words have meanings, and the more technical the language, the more precise its definitions.  Let us once again venture into the realm of outer space.  Though there are plenty of space-related words in your thesaurus, it does not mean they are all applicable to your subject.  A glaring example of this kind of mistake is the overuse of the word “intergalactic.” It sounds impressive, and it should, because it refers to something that spans the unbelievably vast emptiness between galaxies.  A galaxy, in case you don’t already know, is a spinning cluster of billions of stars; each of these stars may be the sun for its own family of planets.  So a galaxy is a pretty huge thing, far, far bigger than our solar system, and intergalactic space is unbelievably more vast than that. So if you’re talking about a meteor that came from Mars, you should call it an “interplanetary” traveler; if you’re talking about NASA sending a probe to the nearby star Alpha Centauri, then use “interstellar,” which literally means “between the stars.”
           The same kind of attention must be paid to medical terms (a “schizophrenic” is not the same as a person with “multiple personality disorder”), as well as those employed in other scientific, legal, financial or even culinary circles.  All it takes is a little research.  Once you find a likely candidate in your thesaurus, take the time to check its definition and proper usage (from a dictionary, encyclopedia or a search of the relevant technical sites online) to make sure you don’t end up looking like an idiomatic idiot.

4.      4. Disregarding your audience.  You should never assume that all your readers talk the way you do.  Unless your target is your own posse (a term soon to be dated, I’m sure – see No. 2 above), you cannot expect them to be in on all the current slang that you use on a daily basis. If your goal is to reach more people, you need to meet them at least half-way.  That doesn’t mean you have to use worn-out phrases and dull language – you just have to be more creative in finding ways to bridge the gap. Sometimes you can get away with slang if the meaning of a term is easily gleaned from its context, and you can take pride in helping introduce it to a wider audience.  But if it’s too obscure or counter-intuitive (think of the generational confusion over the word “bad”), and you don’t want to burden your prose with an explanation or a footnote, then you’re better off leaving it out. 
    And then there’s jargon.  In some situations, the use of technical language is unavoidable.  But remember who your target audience is and, if necessary, fill in some of the blanks for them.  Informing the average reader about the intricacies of financial derivatives would probably require you to define the more arcane terms and possibly use some kind of analogy to get the idea across.  Then again, if your story is really about a reformed Wall Street con man who is trying to regain custody of his daughter after being released from prison, you shouldn’t bog the reader down with such irrelevancies. 

5.      5. Showing off your own illiteracy.  Well, perhaps “illiteracy” is too strong a word, but far too many people are unaware of their own limitations when it comes to writing, and that just makes them look even less professional.  I once attended a publishing convention where a gentleman had propped up a sign on his table proclaiming in big, bold letters, that he was a professional “playwrighter.” Maybe he was trying to be clever, but all I saw was a guy who either did not understand the word “playwright” (his own job title!) or was simply terrible at spelling.  Either of these shortcomings could be overlooked in a plumber or a house painter, but for a man claiming to be a professional writer? Come on!
         Just as an auto mechanic needs to know how a car engine works, a wordsmith has to know an awful lot about words.  If you keep confusing the possessive “its” with the contraction “it’s,” then you should be in another line of work, my friend. And you cannot rely on Spellchecker to find all your mistakes for you.  It can’t tell when you’ve mixed up “visible” with “visual” or when you’ve employed an incorrect homonym (“there” vs. “their” vs. “they’re,” for instance).  A certain amount of leeway is granted in the name of style – it’s called “poetic license” – but that should never be an excuse for sloppy grammar.
         If you do not have an eye for proof-reading (or perhaps you just don’t know because you’ve never had your proofing skills tested), then I suggest you find someone with a sharp eye to take a look at what you’ve written.  Don’t ask your brother or your best pal – go to your old English teacher, or maybe that know-it-all at work who’s always making fun of the way you talk. Don’t ask for an opinion on the story; instead, hand him a red pen and challenge him to find all your mistakes. It will probably be a humbling experience, but well worth it. 
        Publishers and literary agents say that if they come across more than two errors on the first page of a manuscript, they will simply toss the book into the “reject” bin and devote their attention to authors who know what they are doing. As for clients, the educated ones are always put off by easily corrected errors, although they probably won’t bother to tell you.  Not only does this kind of sloppiness pull their attention away from the message itself, they figure if the writer is indifferent about his own business, then how can he possibly give a damn about theirs?

6.      6. Not bothering to rewrite.  You worked long and hard on this piece of copy, and now that you’ve reached the end, it’s time to send it in. After all, you’re a professional, the best writer you know.  You’ve proofed it, and all the misspellings and grammar glitches have been corrected.  What more could anyone possibly ask?  Well, how about this: did you get the message through?  The whole point, remember, was to put some kind of idea across.  Sure, the message is obvious to you. But then again, wasn’t that true even before you set down a single word?
         What really matters is how it is received by someone who doesn’t share your brain. Obviously, the easiest way to find out is to hand a copy to another person and see what she gets out of it.  Quiz her to determine if and where your ideas might have gotten lost in translation. Maybe she’ll have a suggestion or two about how to fix it – not so much to trample on your pride or usurp your position as the writer of the piece, but as a member of your audience to whom a little more emphasis here, or the spelling out of an acronym there, would make all the difference. She doesn’t have to tell you what words to use, and you certainly don’t have to accept all of her recommendations, but it would be in your best interest to learn how and why any misunderstandings occurred so you can use that creative mind of yours to find your own solution.
    Don’t be too reluctant to change something if it isn’t working.  That joke you wrote in the first paragraph should have killed -- if only the reader had a better sense of humor, or more familiarity with the subject matter, or time to look up the definition of that obscure word you used in the punch line.  These are just excuses; if the idea doesn’t come across immediately, then even the most lyrical word choice in the world won’t matter. I once tried to impress a Japanese client with the name of a theme park concept based on a pun I had worked out in his native language (with which I was only vaguely familiar, even with a helpful translator at my side). As you can imagine, it flopped like a boneless chicken.  It was not his fault; I should have flight-tested the idea with other Japanese speakers before deciding to go ahead with it. Lesson learned.

7.      7. Letting style overshadow meaning.  A poetic license is not a permit to murder the English language. Every writer eventually develops his own voice, which is often what makes reading his work so enjoyable. One author might include colorful phrases he heard while growing up in the old neighborhood; another might seem to go through contortions to avoid ever splitting an infinitive. Or using a sentence fragment.  One author may use similes whereas another would always opt for  metaphors; one may be known for his hyperbole, and another for her understatement.  But all successful writers have one thing in common: their style does not get in the way of the message.
         “Well, what about Shakespeare?” you counter. “His stuff is so stylish, I can’t understand what he’s talking about.” That’s a fair point, as far as it goes.  But the flowery language that the Bard employed was much more accessible back in his day.  People talked like that all the time, though perhaps not with quite the same flourish. Those with an education strove to exhibit the same sort of eloquence, especially in their writing, even if they were just scribbling in their private diaries.  Many of the terms and idioms they used are so out of date that nowadays we’d need a guidebook to follow along, and indeed much is lost in the translation.  But those people were not writing for the readers of some distant future; they were conversing with their contemporaries in a language they all understood.  To them, the poet’s style was hardly a barrier to understanding. More likely it was an enhancement, as it helped them to experience feelings as well as ideas.  Modern poets rarely try to emulate Shakespeare’s archaic wording, but they do labor, as he did, to convey levels of meaning and emotion using the language of our day.
    On the other hand, simulating a famous author’s style is a time-honored technique in advertising and entertainment, where the idea might be to invoke a particular feeling. You could imply the power and manliness of a new cologne with the black-and-white drama of a film noir scene, complete with robust adjectives and plenty of slang right out of a pulp novel.  Here the style serves the message: men who want to be perceived as masculine might be lured into buying a bottle. 
    But sometimes the message gets lost, as in the case of those beautiful commercials that leave you wondering what the heck they were even trying to sell.  Unless you already know something about the product (in which case you’re probably already a customer), the ad is not going to convince you to make a purchase.  That’s too bad for the client, no matter how many awards the agency wins for its artistry.
    Sometimes the connection between style and message is crystal clear, but the style is still not appropriate.  Not too long ago there was an ad on TV for a product that promotes regularity.  It featured a guy in a hardhat at a construction site.  While he talked in innocuous terms about this new-found solution to his constipation problems, the action in the background showed various metaphors for the biological process he was finally able to experience.  A rusty steel beam was extruded through a small hole in a cement wall, a load of 55-gallon drums was released to roll off a truck bed behind his backside, and in the final scene he stood with one leg up on a cord of lumber as a dump truck poured forth a colossal pile of bricks in a direct line of sight beyond the seat of his pants.
   I chuckled, of course, but I was not at all surprised when the ad was pulled after only a couple of weeks. Though the message was pretty clear, no doubt the style of the presentation was offensive to a lot of potential customers. Potty jokes may be the easiest to come up with (just ask any five-year-old boy), but they usually aren’t appropriate in mixed company. Is it any wonder that phrases like “that not-so-fresh feeling” are brought into play? Here we have an acceptable exception to the rule: when dealing with sensitive matters, you could do a lot worse than skirt the issue – in this case, to intentionally use style to obscure the message, so that only the more discerning (read: adult) audience members can connect the dots. Your best bet is to run it by someone in the target demographic (especially if there is a possibility of  running up against community or ethnic taboos) and make sure the message comes through the way you intended.

8.      8. Using lots of typographic tricks and creative fonts.  Go bold or go home, the athletes say.  But that does not apply to everything.  If your writing needs visual tricks to garner the attention of your audience, then maybe you should be using different words altogether.  Comic books use bold lettering to denote emphasis, but I think that is because they traditionally use a hand-lettered all-caps style in their captions and word balloons, and there’s not a whole lot left to work with.  Italics are a bit too subtle for the sans-serif letters, and underlining, when it is used, tends to look more like a proof-reader’s mark.  But if you’re not writing lines for Spider-Man and his ilk, you should reserve bold type for section headings and chapter titles.  Typing a word in all-caps can indeed seem like shouting (how many times have you been flamed for leaving the Caps Lock button on while conversing online?), but it’s also how we express acronyms, abbreviations and certain brand names, and there’s enough confusion already in each of those arenas.
    So how do you emphasize a word or phrase?  Well, if you really feel you must do something, and the words aren’t already set off in quotes or parentheses or brackets (due to their nature or context), then use italics. Not bold italics, and not all-capital italics, and certainly not some extravagantly fat version of the typeface you are using.  And never, under any circumstances, try to emphasize a word in your text by using a different font altogether! 
    This is not to say that different fonts have no place at all in a passage of text.  If, for example you are trying to show the reader just what a name looks like in Old English script, then by all means, knock yourself out.  But here we are talking about a special purpose other than emphasis.  In advertising copy, especially, where language is often a graphic element in itself, the use of various fonts is a pretty useful way to catch the reader’s eye and perhaps to convey a secondary meaning.  You might portray a falling leaf by tracing its path down the page with a looping line of text, or convey the idea of growth by making each subsequent word in a sentence several points larger, or fatter or taller. The unusual appearance of such words does command a certain amount of attention, as all novelty does, but the emphasis itself is merely a fortunate by-product of a more targeted purpose.  The aforementioned trail of text is not crying, “Hey, look at me!” so much as it is saying, “Flutter down the page with me and see all the pretty red and orange leaves that are gathering at the bottom.”
    What about punctuation?  Certainly it has its place; quotation marks are often used to denote irony or the unreliability of an assertion, and the whole purpose of the exclamation point is to provide emphasis.  The main problem with the exclamation point is that (except in Spanish) it only appears at the end of the sentence, so you don’t always know what’s being emphasized until you’ve passed it by.  The same can be true of attributions, although in this case the fix is not too difficult.  Compare these two versions of the same sentence:
                “I’m going to the store,” he shouted over the sound of the lawnmower.
                Over the sound of the lawnmower he shouted, “I’m going to the store.”
If you’re reading these aloud, you would have to go back and read the first version again to get it right.  In the second, you don’t even need an exclamation point to know ahead of time that the character is yelling.
    But here is the rule that applies to all of these techniques: use them sparingly.  If every sentence ends with an exclamation point, how will the reader know when a character is shouting?  Have you ever opened a used textbook and seen where someone had highlighted practically every sentence? I’ll bet it wasn’t much help to the person who did the highlighting, either.

    So there you have it:  a short list of common writing mistakes that can derail your bullet-train to respectability as a professional wordsmith.  I’m sure there are plenty of others, and just as many exceptions to the rules I’ve laid out.  The important thing to remember is that you don’t have to commit such errors; a little self-education and perhaps some outside help with editing will go a long way toward overcoming even the worst of habits. 
    Maybe you don’t agree.  That’s fine with me;  I don’t accept every suggestion I hear as gospel, either.  But just hearing a comment makes me examine why I prefer to do something a certain way, and as a result, my choice becomes a deliberate, defensible act instead of a mistake born out of ignorance. If my reasoning has as much merit as the argument against it, I will likely continue to do it my way. But if it doesn’t, then I will try to re-train myself so I can meet that higher standard. After all, in today’s hyper-competitive world, I need every advantage I can lay my hands on.  Don’t you?

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