Reposting: B.S. (Be Specific)

No_Bullshit            B.S. is one of the abbreviations I pencil in the margin of prose I’m reviewing –my own or a client’s. It stands for Be Specific, though it evokes a different two-word expletive that means much the same thing.

The best way to be specific is to know what you want to say – and sometimes that takes several meandering drafts. Once you’ve figured out what you want to accomplish in a scene or a post, a chapter, a story or a report, you can guide your reader to understand you clearly with specific language – with words.

Words can be general, like the word food – the fuel that sustains life. A general word fails to give your reader much guidance, leaving her to imagine grapes when you imagined roast beef.

Words that are more specific are limited in scope, like the word snack – which is a small amount of food between meals. This narrows what your reader can imagine, though one reader might think carrot sticks and another chocolate chip cookies with milk.

Words that are concrete are even more specific, and tell your reader exactly what to imagine. Make the snack chips, and you’ve given your reader the kind of narrow direction that allows him to see just what you intended.

Of course, words don’t exist by themselves, and the more specific you can make them all, the clearer your reader will see. Here are two different examples.

George held the bag between his knees, pushing a steady stream of chips in his mouth as he sat in traffic.

            Jeremy set out blue corn chips in a yellow bowl to brighten the November afternoon.

Here are some other examples of general, specific and concrete words:

  • Clothes, business casual, khakis
  • Writing, poetry, sonnet
  • Birds, raptors, eagle

You get the idea.

Adjectives are another opportunity to Be Specific. Here’s an example from My Writing Bible, The Harbrace College Handbook:

  • Bad planks: rotten, warped, scorched, knotty, termite-eaten
  • Bad children: rowdy, rude, ungrateful, selfish, perverse
  • Bad meat: tough, tainted, overcooked, contaminated

Every time we use a general adjective, we miss an opportunity to guide our readers closer to what we mean. English is a rich language, so there’s no excuse for using small when you could say so much more with tiny, microscopic, sub-atomic, undeveloped; or big when you could say plump, hulking, towering, Herculean.

A thesaurus is a dictionary of synonyms, and it’s a good place to find words. I find mine in The Original Roget’s Thesaurus of English Words and Phrases, originally published in 1852 and revised many times since. I love poking around in it, and find it much more complete and satisfying to use than the thesaurus in my word-processor.

It is a writer’s job to direct readers to reimagine for themselves what you mean. Since readers bring their own, varying, experiences and prejudices to your work, you must give specific instructions that narrow how your work can be understood. You must be authoritarian. And one of the best methods is to cut the BS and Be Specific with your words.

While I’m away, I’m rerunning some posts with writing advice worth repeating. This post originally appeared here on December 3, 2013.

When I’m not traveling, I live a rural and rooted life in Vermont, which I chronicle in my weekly blog, Living in Place. Look for replies to your comments in mid-July.

Please visit my website to learn more about my mission: advancing issues through narrative; telling stories to create change. Thanks!

“Fucking” is a Poor Intensifier

“Fucking” is a poor an intensifier in written non-fiction.

My objection is not one of prudishness but one of good usage. I don’t approve of using “very” as an intensifier, either (or really, or so). Saying something is “fucking unbelievable” is no better than “very unbelievable”; both lack imagination and weaken one’s prose. In the crowded blogosphere, prose with muscle is more likely to attract readers than flabby and/or overused intensifiers.

Readers depend on writers to rant with vivid language.

I think “fucking” has lost its vividness due to overuse. It’s lost its meaning and punch. Like love handles on hips, it’s flabby padding rather than taut flesh.

Lest I be written off as a member of the grammar police, I’m not. Language lives and changes with its users. Neologisms arrive (sexting, localvore) and antiquated words fade (mooncalf, quidnunc). Usage changes, too, as exemplified by the gender-neutral singular they.

Just as there’s a time and place for sex, there’s a time and a place for “fucking” in the text.

Certainly, it belongs when quoted as in, Luskin objects “to the current trend of using ‘fucking’ as an intensifier in written non-fiction.” You must use the word if you’re quoting someone else, and unlike on broadcast media, the word doesn’t have to be “bleeped” in print.

Another justified usage occurs when you’re writing fiction and it’s the language of your narrator or characters, in which case, let it rip! Some people say fucking as often as others say like, almost as a nervous tic.

Ultimately, it’s a matter of audience.

I’m sure that some of the writers who overuse “fucking” as their intensifier of choice have readers who don’t give it a second thought. But writers who want to reach an audience that includes people they don’t know, as well as people who might not agree with them, it’s better to state your ideas with clarity and precision. Personally, I want people to read what I write and object to what I say rather than to the language I’ve used.

Deborah Lee Luskin, M. Shafer, Photo

Deborah Lee Luskin,
M. Shafer, Photo

Deborah Lee Luskin is a novelist, essayist and educator. Her work can be found on Vermont Public Radio and on her website, where she blogs about her rural life in Living in Place and about middle age in The Middle Ages. Her award-winning novel, Into the Wilderness, is a love story about two sixty-somethings, set in Vermont in 1964.

Writing Short.

WRITING SHORT

I’m used to writing short. A radio commentary runs five hundred words; an editorial column, about a thousand; a post to this blog somewhere in-between. One of my best-paying jobs requires turning a thirty-minute interview into four hundred and fifty words and reviewing a book in one hundred and fifty.

Writers are always told, “Write to your audience.” I assume my audience is multi-tasking – either driving, clocking miles on a treadmill, or on the pot. As writers, we can hope for constipated readers, but I don’t think we can count on it.

Nor is writing short confined to non-fiction. The historical trend in fiction has been toward shorter and shorter. Samuel Richardson’s Clarissa, or, the History of a Young Lady (1748) is generally credited as the longest novel in the English language. Even abridged versions of Clarissa are long – on a par with the novels of Charles Dickens, Anthony Trollope and other eminent Victorians, whose audience lived at the pace of foot- and horse- travel. In our cyber-age, novels have dropped to 80,000 words, and flash fiction has become all the rage.

Here are my five rules for writing short:

  1. Tell a story. While other species may have language, as far as we know, only humans have narrative. We take stories seriously, and we remember them. The narrative engine pulls everything you have to say.
  2.  Be Specific. Consider Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice. The plot is entirely predictable: Boy meets girl. They hate each other. They fall in love. The delight is in the details: Darcy is tall, dark, handsome and rude. Elizabeth is smart, penniless and shrewd. While a reader is free to make generalizations, it’s a writer’s job to use minute particulars to lead a reader to them.
  3. Hone Your Diction. Use the word that is specific and exact. As Mark Twain explains, “The difference between the right word and the almost right word is the difference between lightning and a lightning bug.” Use the right word. Don’t say car when you mean rust-bucket. There’s a world of difference between Pops and Daddy. Do you mean sensuous or sinewy, scrawny or slim?
  4. Power with Verbs. No other part of speech insinuates itself into your reader’s mind as a verb. Verbs attract attention. Verbs flirt with your readers; verbs weasel into the creases of your reader’s brain. A Positron Emission Tomography (PET scan) of the brain shows that it’s the verbs that trigger the green and red fireworks of a reader’s neurotransmitters.
  5. Compress. You’ve invented your story, filled it with minute particulars, fortified your verbs, and chosen your velvet words; now it’s time to cross out the unnecessary ones. Sticking to a strict word-count demands that you write to the point, with focus.

The payoff for writing short is being read. Elmore Leonard says it best, “I try to leave out the parts that people skip.”

This post is 487 words.

Deborah Lee Luskin is novelist, essayist and educator. She is a regular commentator for Vermont Public Radio, a Visiting Scholar for the Vermont Humanities Council and the author of the award winning novel, Into The Wilderness. For more information, visit her website at www.deborahleeluskin.com

Souvenirs from the Edge

In Happy Trails, my last post before I left on vacation, I anticipated collecting stories while I was away. But one of the wonders of travel is its element of surprise: I didn’t collect so many stories as I collected pages and pages of words. Southwest Utah is beautiful and strange, a place where geology left me slack-jawed with wonder and awe. The only way I could make sense of what saw was to learn the words that explain it.

Happily, geology is a descriptive science, and the language of the discipline is pure delight: lithification describes the processes by which loose sediment hardens into rock; erosion eats away at a plateau, forming a canyon; an arroyo is a dry watercourse; the slot canyon I hiked was a wet one, with the Virgin River washing through it. I saw escarpments and buttresses, pinnacles, valley floors. I saw evidence of sedimentation, faults, uplifts and anticlines, volcanic eruptions and aeolian erosion – the force of wind over time – wearing down rock as if it were a well-used bar of soap.

Whether it was water or wind that whittled the rock, the result was wild with beauty. At Bryce Canyon National Park, sandstone has been washed and blown away, leaving a landscape of hoodoos – the stone pillars that remain after the wind and water wear away the land. The only way to make sense of the landscape was to seek metaphors: the hoodoos stood like sentinels, like chess pieces, like columns, flying buttresses, minarets, towers, steeples, the dome of a mosque. The stone was melting like so many candles, dissolving, like pillars of salt. Advancing like an army. Holding steady like Rodin’s Burghers of Calais. It was almost impossible to see the stone qua stone; it always appeared as something else. Even the park rangers had names to identify landforms: Chinese Wall; Queen Victoria; Christopher Columbus; Fairyland Canyon.

This landscape also taught me chemistry and color. Where water seeps from the rocks, minerals leach out: calcium carbonate makes white; ferrous oxide red; copper sulfate green. It’s a Kodachrome landscape, with White Cliffs and coral pink sand dunes and sagebrush scrub.

The flowers were another source of amazement, growing in soil that was little more than rock dust, parched by the sun and rationed to fifteen inches of water all year. Yet the biodiversity was astounding, and I bought myself a field guide in an attempt to learn the poetry of names: Greenleaf manzanita, juniper, ponderosa pine, aspen and aster, cedar, scrub oak, thistle, columbine, lobelia, holly, box elder, corymbed buckwheat, cliffrose, sacred datura. I saw broom snakeweed, slenderleaf rabbitbrush, yellow beeplant, Freemont’s mahonia, crescent milkvetch and storksbill.

I saw new fauna as well: magpies and ravens, mule deer and bison, Steller’s Jays and one giant, wild, California Condor. I stuffed my notebook with all these new words and learned as much as I could about this desert ecosystem: how it was formed, how it keeps changing, how it was settled, how it’s threatened and how it’s being protected.

I don’t know what I’ll do with all these verbal souvenirs of my trip. I know that simply turning them over in my mouth gives me great aural pleasure. They also remind me how much I love language – the raw material of my work. And they may serve as the source of future metaphors, just as the hiking I did was like writing a new book. Putting one foot in front of the other on the narrow path leading up to Observation Point in Zion National Park was easy; looking over the edge was not. Heights make me dizzy, and my faith in the power of gravity to keep me secure in my boots wavered. I feared that somehow, I’d be pulled over the edge. I didn’t think about hitting the ground; it’s the fall I’m afraid of, of being so completely out of control.

But I battled fear with metaphor. Climbing a narrow trail blasted from rock is not too different from writing a book: challenging, relentless, on the edge. But the sense of wonder! The accomplishment! I practiced embracing my fears. That’s what I’ll keep in mind – that beckoning edge – as I buckle down to the scary hike into a new story. After a great vacation, I’m ready to face the blank page again.

Deborah Lee Luskin is the author of the award-winning novel, Into The Wilderness, “a fiercely intelligent love story” set in Vermont in 1964. She is a regular Commentator on Vermont Public Radio and teaches for the Vermont Humanities Council. Learn more at her website: www.deborahleeluskin.com

Word Order

The English language on word order depends.

If that sentence doesn’t convince you, try this:

Take the adverb “only” and place it in different positions in the following sentence.

He said, “I love you.” (Nice thought.)

Only he said, “I love you.” (No one else said it.)

He only said, “I love you.” (He said nothing else.)

He said, “Only I love you.” (No one else does.)

He said, “I only love you.” (Don’t like you much, though.)

He said, “I love only you.” (He doesn’t love any one else.)

He said, “I love you only.” (His love is exclusive.)

In The Elements of Style, Strunk and White advise that “Modifiers should come, if possible, next to the work they modify.” When modifiers are misplaced, the result is ambiguity – and often downright hilarity. Consider this Classified Ad: “Piano for sale by lady with carved legs.”

Because English depends on word order, “with carved legs” describes the lady, not the piano. The prepositional phrase needs to be placed in proximity to what it describes.

Here’s an example from The Harbrace College Handbook. “The doctor said that there was nothing seriously wrong with a smile.” I used Harbrace when I taught Freshman Composition nearly thirty years ago. Surely there have been advances in medicine since my college teaching days, but smiles have always been terrific, especially when it’s the doctor who’s smiling while delivering the good news. “The doctor said with a smile that there was nothing seriously wrong.”

Here’s another example from Harbrace: “A garish poster attracts the visitor’s eye on the east wall.” Kinda gross, really, to hang an eye on the wall. But a poster hung on the east wall will attract a visitor’s eye, and not inspire unintentional images of body parts nailed up for display.

These examples demonstrate the importance of word order at the most basic level. Word order can also be used for emphasis. It is generally accepted usage to put the most important word in a series or a sentence last. “Urban life is unhealthy, morally corrupt, and fundamentally inhuman” (Rene Dubos).

Word order can also lend depth and complexity to prose –while maintaining clarity. “To be French is to be like no one else; to be American is to be like everyone else” (Peter Ustinov).

The craft of writing begins with diction. Words are the raw material of prose, the building blocks of sentences. Successful architecture depends on the order and care with which the raw materials are wrought.

Deborah Lee Luskin is the author of the award-winning novel, Into The Wilderness, “a fiercely intelligent love story” set in Vermont in 1964. She is a regular Commentator on Vermont Public Radio and teaches for the Vermont Humanities Council. Learn more at her website: www.deborahleeluskin.com

Words, words, words!

Musicians have notes; artists, colors and shapes; writers have words. Writers in English have lots of words. While it’s impossible to count the number of words in our language, linguists estimate that English contains about a million different words, two million if you add all the scientific names for things. And new words enter the language all the time; just consider “Localvore,” a noun, and “tweet,” a verb, both recent additions to a language that continually grows and shifts.

Despite this wealth, the average sixteen year old is estimated to depend on a vocabulary of ten- to twelve-thousand words; a college graduate twenty- to twenty-five thousand – a mere pittance considering the wealth of the language. According to the American Heritage Dictionary, Shakespeare used 884,647 different words, made up of 29,066 distinct forms, including proper names.

What all of this means for a writer is that we have lots of raw material to work with, and if we want to express ourselves to be clearly understood, we need to learn these words and to use them. But it’s a big job, so here are some ways to build, strengthen and tone your language.

Verbs. No other part of speech insinuates itself into your reader’s mind as well as your verbs. Verbs attract attention. Some say verbs flirt with your readers; others might argue that they do something else with your readers’ mind, another verb that begins with an f. Truth be told, verbs weasel into the creases of your reader’s brain. If you could watch a Positron Emission Tomography (a/k/a a PET scan) of the brain of someone reading your stories, it’s the verbs that would ignite the fireworks of brain activity that show up. Those green and red splotches exploding into Technicolor mark your reader’s neurotransmitters firing, ramping up her heartbeat, increasing her rate of respiration, maybe generating a little dampness in her armpits and groin. If you’re writing erotica, perhaps a little throb. Whatever it is you are writing, it’s your verbs that capture your reader’s attention.

Diction. If it’s verbs that capture attention, it’s your language, generally, that keeps it. Everyone knows the old saw, “a picture is worth a thousand words.” In this day and age of the 140-character tweet, a thousand words are way too many. Try ten.

Use the word that is specific and exact. As Mark Twain explains, “The difference between the right word and the almost right word is the difference between lightning and a lightning bug.” Use the right word. Don’t say “car” when you mean “rust-bucket”. There’s a world of difference between “Pops” and “Daddy”. Do you mean “sensuous” or “sinewy”? Every word is an opportunity: use it.

The best way to enlarge your vocabulary is to read – widely. Don’t read just poetry or fiction. Read science, travel, philosophy and car repair manuals. Read contemporary work and read poems, plays, novels, histories and letters from long ago. Look up words you don’t know. Enlarging your vocabulary can also be fun and games: Scrabble, Lexulous. Free Rice. Crossword puzzles. Drive your friends and family mad with puns. Play Mad-Libs. Subscribe to A Word A Day.

Just as regular work-outs at the gym increase strength and stamina, a little regular attention to diction will help you build your vocabulary muscles, tone your sentences, and make you a writer of leaner, stronger, prose.

Deborah Lee Luskin is a commentator for Vermont Public Radio, a Visiting Scholar for the Vermont Humanities Council and the author of Into The Wilderness, a love story between sixty-somethings, set in Vermont in 1964.