January 6, 2011

Once more with feeling: Using colorful language

It’s a rare writer who manages to get through a whole book-length manuscript without falling back on a cliché or hackneyed expression or two. As Arthur Plotnik puts it, “…gangs of predictable idioms and images will bully their way into first drafts.” Plotnik is the author of a wonderful book about language called Spunk & Bite. And yes, the reference in the title is very much intended.
Let’s suppose you’ve got a client whose language could best be described as “workmanlike.” There’s nothing wrong with it exactly; it’s just kind of, well, dull. Or suppose your writer is inexperienced enough that he or she doesn’t even recognize that some similes are just too old and tired to have an effect anymore. How do you work with such a writer? Just saying, “Use more colorful language” isn’t too helpful.
Here’s where Plotnik’s book can be really useful for an editor. It’s full of chapters that break down what makes language colorful, and even include some exercises writers can do to practice. Using some of his tips, you can point your writer toward ways to liven up his or her prose. Or, as Plotnik puts it, “Force yourself to fill the gaps with language that hoists a big exclamation point (but not a question mark) above the reader’s head.”
For example, the book has a whole chapter on surprise, starting with a quote from Woody Allen, “if it bends it’s comedy; if it breaks it’s not.” That, Plotnik believes, is a good measure for the use of surprise in writing. You want something that will jolt readers and give them pleasure but not confuse them or call attention to the writing rather than the meaning. (Plotnik even cites a scientific study proving that surprise is a pleasurable experience.)
How do you achieve surprise? Well, most of us have probably been exhorted by various teachers to come up with original similes rather than lean on the old, tired ones. But Plotnik goes beyond this basic advice. “Some writers,” he says, “simply lasso unexpected zingers from their imaginations as the need arises.” For the rest of us, Plotnik points out that rhetorical devices can provide a structure for surprise. Now, some of the devices he mentions I’ve never heard of. Others I’ve heard of but never thought of in quite this way. Here’s a portion of his list:
·         Oxymoron: pairs incongruous or contradictory terms. “engagingly demented” “deep inconsequence”
·         Catacosmesis: delivers statements in descending order of importance. “I ask for peace, prosperity and a bagel with cream cheese.”
·         Enallage: Uses one part of speech for another. “Grammar? I’ll grammar you!”
·         Understatement: Says surprisingly less about more. “tall and virtually odorless.”
·         Neologism: Invented word form, often made out of other words. “schmooseoisie” (schmooze + bourgeois)
If reading this list doesn’t inspire you, then you can’t possibly be an editor, because finding fascination in language is a basic characteristic of the tribe. But loving language doesn’t mean we always understand how particular words or expressions work their magic. Personally, I really love it when someone like Plotnik can break it down for me, help me look under the hood to see how that writer I so admire has done it (the examples in his book are mostly taken from others’ published work).
Of course, writers’ styles vary, and no amount of encouragement on your part will turn a writer whose style is simple and spare into a writer of lyric essays, but I believe you can, by providing good examples, move a writer on the continuum from ordinary to extraordinary within his or her natural style—a writer whose work has some spunk and bite.


  1. I can see your posts are going to increase my book-buying budget this month, Nancy. I don't (yet) have Plotnik's book, and it's already expanded my vocabulary.

    I wonder, at what stage would you refer a writer to this sort of resource? Early on? At a line edit? Depends on the writer? I can imagine using this for nonfiction, or for distinguishing characters through dialog. Hmm. Very much fun to think about. Thank you!

  2. Loved the post -- what an entertaining and useful topic. I run into these "how to create sparkling language" issues all the time while editing. I hadn't heard of this book before, Nancy, but I've got to go get it pronto! And for myself, as you say, "...loving language doesn’t mean we always understand how particular words or expressions work their magic," so true. This helps. Thanks!

  3. Interesting question, Kyra. We tend to think of language (at least I do) as more of a polishing thing--something you think of after the basics like structure are in place. Yet, when we write a letter to an author, we generally always look at the language. Seems like, if a writer thought about the language from the beginning, it could save work later. But then I suppose it depends on the writer, on how far along the path he or she is.

  4. Arthur Plotnik found our blog and sent this comment to me at my personal e-mail:

    Hi, Nancy,

    Your elating review of SPUNK & BITE prompted me to post a larky comment to the AE site, but I didn't see it there today. The important thing is that you know how much I appreciate your generous and thoughtful take on the book, especially coming from someone of your stellar achievements. Let me just offer an emphatic thank you before I overwhelm you with superlatives (see subject of my next book, below).

    With all best wishes,

    Art Plotnik
    Arthur Plotnik
    2120 Pensacola Ave.
    Chicago, IL 60618

    "Coming from Viva Editions in spring 2011

    Arthur Plotnik's

    Better Than Great
    A Plenitudinous Compendium
    of Wallopingly Fresh Superlatives

    "Don't praise anything without it!"