Wield Your Words Carefully

I will admit I have a love/hate relationship with so-called “prose stylists”. I, like many editors, have a soft spot for literary fiction: I admire a well-turned phrase, am tickled by metatextual playfulness, and am impressed by striking imagery, but more often than not, beautiful prose styling is simply not enough.

I’ve often read submissions (and the occasional published novel!) with exquisite prose, but whose beautiful writing eventually becomes its biggest burden. For me, good writing exists to clarify things: human emotion, philosophy, imagery. It doesn’t matter whether or not its as blunt as Hemingway or as florid as Joyce; good writing should illuminate the story, not obfuscate it. Often these novels are so enamoured of its own prose that it fails to provide a compelling story to ground it. Something may sound pretty, but it may not actually say anything.

I have always been careful with my own diction. Perhaps it’s because English wasn’t my first language, or perhaps it’s because I’m inherently a niggling little word-tinkerer, but I prefer people to wield their words carefully. My personal aesthetic philosophy when it comes to prose style is like that of a master swordsman: strike with precision and accuracy and truth with an economy of movement (words). I will allow the occasional virtuoso flourish, but for the most part, keep it simple, keep it spare. Every movement (word) must have purpose, otherwise it is superfluous.

Part of this personal aesthetic philosophy comes from years defending my own word choices in college writing workshops. “Why did you pick this word?” If I couldn’t answer why aside from “it sounded pretty”, it had to go. Poetry is a great learning tool for honing your own prose style: rhythm, repetition, alliteration, consonance, assonance…these are all tools a master can utilize to make a point. I also used to have to orally explicate poems for my English classes and while I hated it then, I appreciate it now. Language is a weapon to be wielded, for good or ill, so choose wisely.

Below are a few of what I consider excellent examples of expert language-wielding:

A well-starched man named Briggs.

– Stefan Bachmann, The Peculiar

Briggs isn’t even a main character in Stefan Bachmann’s novel; he’s superfluous, he’s extra, he’s a non-speaking role in the prologue. Yet, in three words, Bachmann has provided a complete picture of just what sort of man Briggs is: uptight, fastidious, a bit stiff, and most likely a stickler for rules and regulations. A starchy, rigid sort of man, the sort of man who probably irons the ruffles on his shirt. An economy of words, yet richly evocative.

As he read, I fell in love with him the way you fall asleep: slowly, and then all at once.

– John Green, The Fault in Our Stars

There’s always one gem of a sentence in John Green’s novels that shines so brightly it almost diminishes the brilliance of his other sentences. Green’s particular strength is in describing a feeling with exact precision in language that is both simple and true. No fancy imagery, no frills, no fuss, no muss. Spare, simple, and elegant. We all know what it feels like to fall asleep both slowly and then all at once, and with this sentence, we also know what it feels like to fall in love.

In reality I was a pencil drawing of a photocopy of a Polaroid of my sister–you could see the resemblance in a certain light, if you were seeking it out because I told you first, if you were being nice.

– Nova Ren Suma, Imaginary Girls

“A pencil drawing of a photocopy of a Polaroid”. There’s a lot to unpack in that phrase, not the least of which is its rhythm, repetition of ideas, and subtle alliteration. Suma could have easily written “In reality I was but a pale shadow of my sister”, a cliched phrase that also makes no sense (how can a shadow be pale?), but instead she offers something concrete. A Polaroid is an imperfect photograph of the real thing, a photocopy degrades the original image, and a pencil drawing is only an approximation. In one phrase, Suma is deftly able to accurately convey Chloe’s relationship to her sister, both physically and “spiritually”.

We are the sons of Adam. It is in our nature to turn and face the faceless, to name the nameless thing. It drives us to greatness; it brings us to ruin.

– Rick Yancey, The Isle of Blood

I could try and dredge up some of the literary terms I didn’t learn in high school and college (allusion, anaphora, epistrophe, juxtaposition, etc.), but I’m 7 years removed from school now and my brain doesn’t retain anything useful, except, apparently, the dates of the Hundred Years War. (1337 to 1453, if you want to know. 1453, by the way, is also the year the Byzantine Empire fell to the Ottoman Turks and…I should stop now.) Instead I will talk about how Yancey’s protagonist Dr. Pellinore Warthrop is making an observation about the nature of humankind to confront the unknown. Yancey’s ease with rhetorical schemes borders on Shakespearean at times, and he doesn’t need to resort to forced figurative language to convey what he means to say.

All these examples are YA (or in the case of Stefan Bachmann, middle grade) and they span every genre: from historical fantasy (Bachmann) to contemporary (Green) to magical realism (Suma) to horror (Yancey). For me, “literary” is not a genre. It is a qualifying adjective, and these writers all earn the right to call themselves literary in my book.

And your bones have been my bedframe,
And your flesh has been my pillow.

– Ani Difranco, “Both Hands”

And then sometimes, some phrases need absolutely no explanation.

What do you guys think? Are you as much of a language nerd as I am? Or do you not care?


14 Responses to Wield Your Words Carefully

  1. Sarah Wedgbrow Nov 27 2012 at 8:59 am #

    JJ, thanks for this thoughtful examination! I am certainly on your side of the fence about language. It’s a careful balance, and I think some stories require more attention to words than others. Fantastic examples–I remember those sentences from Nova and John’s novels so well. It’s like a perfectly hung picture that never gets shuffled around. A staying point. It’s just SO good.

  2. Kat Zhang Nov 27 2012 at 9:01 am #

    Great post, JJ! I’m a big lover of beautiful prose, and to be honest, I can forgive a lot in terms of plot if characterization and prose are strong 🙂 You make some great points here!

  3. Kristan Nov 27 2012 at 9:12 am #

    Yes, a million times! I’ve definitely evolved, both as a reader and a writer, and netted out in the same position as you in regards to how I like my language. Great explanation and examples — plus major props for including Ani Difranco. 😉

  4. Lindsay Nov 27 2012 at 9:25 am #

    JJ, great post and great examples! While I adore more literary writing, I feel like it’s always best in service to killer, incredibly compelling story–giving us the extra depth and emotion that takes the story from good to great.

  5. Tioka Nov 27 2012 at 9:38 am #

    Loved this. I’m posting it next to my writing desk to refer to when I think I’ve written something oh, so clever.

  6. A. J. Larrieu Nov 27 2012 at 12:07 pm #

    I couldn’t agree more with this. I also think poetry (writing it–even badly–and studying it) is a good way to learn how to use language. Great examples. Great, great post.

  7. AVH @ Verity Books Nov 28 2012 at 2:49 am #

    Even as I become more and more experienced with “adult” literary fiction, I remain attached to young adult literature because I think it most consistently balances between stylistic prose and excellent stories, so I love that your examples are all from YA books. And that John Green line! Whew. I’m not among his rabid fans, but as you say, the man knows how to capture a feeling in a sentence.

  8. Chantal Nov 28 2012 at 6:50 am #

    Great post! I agree 100% and your examples were very well chosen for showing us what you meant. Beautiful prose alone does not make a book great.

  9. Amy Jane Nov 28 2012 at 4:20 pm #

    I sometimes am afraid a “brilliant” phrase will pull someone out of a story. There was one (highly lauded) MG that I ReallyReally wanted to like, but the whole of the first two-four chapters were so full of brilliant language and imagery I finally lost patience and went on to something else.

    The conclusion (and it scared me) was that the author was definitely clever. Very Smart, but not so much a natural storyteller. And I had to ask myself which would I rather be seen as. Hard choice for me.

  10. Alexa (Loves Books) Nov 28 2012 at 5:31 pm #

    I like this post! The examples you gave are pretty darn great, and I agree that, when words are used in the best way possible, they make for such beautiful writing.

  11. Alexa Nov 30 2012 at 8:28 am #

    What Yancey does with words makes me want to cry with love and envy sometimes. I love both florid and minimalist prose, it just depends on the author and the type of story their telling. With Nova Ren Suma, her words are evocative but still sparse, which gave Imaginary Girls that really haunting feeling, like you were just scratching the surface of what was happening. Whereas Yancey puts all the little beautiful details right in your face, which suits his gory horror stories very well.

  12. alicejane011 Dec 2 2012 at 3:48 pm #

    This is such a great post! The examples that were chosen were so fitting. I love beautiful writing but I’ve since realized that it can be a detriment.

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