The first thing to consider is the difference between the diction of writers and civilians. Writers use one set of words, civilians another. Most of us use words from what linguists refer to as “basic level.” We say, “I’m going to go get my car,” rather than “I’m going to go get my 2010 Honda CRV in alabaster silver metallic with a sunroof.” In our example, the car isn’t really the issue; nothing is gained by giving detail.
But what if you have to hold the attention of a reader? Then “I’m going to go get my car” is a hopelessly limp sentence. Every word in it is not only known to the reader but is used in the most ordinary way. So the first thing we need to do is to break the habit of using civilian diction, and only later will we study making up new expressions and misusing old ones in innovative ways.
Our basic guide is this rule: anything familiar is necessarily dull. This is because exposure dulls our senses, in the way silver tarnishes over time. So the dullest, most boring words are the ones we use all the time. Not only that, but these words are so non-specific that they can’t really create in the reader a vivid notion of what you’re saying.
Paradoxically, as the choice of words is narrowed to the most specific, more of the world is excluded while more meaning is conveyed. If we ask you to imagine a table, you can’t possibly come very close to imagining the particular table we’re thinking about. Quick: does it have four legs or just one? Actually, the one we were thinking about is a glass-topped table supported by a statue of a crouching sumo wrestler, which we found on the Internet.
Elspeth Huxley, author of The Flame Trees of Thika, understood the rule of specificity very well indeed and practiced it rigorously. When her family went to Kenya, they didn’t take along “some chickens” but rather “a crate of five Speckled Sussex pullets.” In other words, she gives the specific type of container, the number of chickens, and their breed, variety, sex, and approximate age. The issue here isn’t really one of information. Most modern readers couldn’t tell the difference between a Speckled Sussex pullet and a Spangled Morgan Whitehackle hen, and they certainly don’t care how many chickens went to Thika, or what they went in. But the pullets have a place in Huxley’s story, and if they’re going to go along, then they’re going to do their share in making the story as lively as possible. “Speckled Sussex pullets” beats “some chickens” all hollow as a lively phrase.
It is common, in fact, for writers to choose specific words the reader is unlikely to know, especially when the context makes the meaning clear, as in this example from Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian:
They disembark aboard a lighter, settlers with their chattels, all studying the low coastline, the thin bight of sand and scrub pine swimming in the haze.
McCarthy could have said “boat” instead of “lighter,” “possessions instead of “chattels,” and avoided “bight” entirely. But too much of that washes all the color out of prose, as we see if we rewrite his passage in more generic words:
They get off onto a boat, people with their possessions, all looking at the shore, where the haze obscures the sand and trees.
This is why our first exercise is moving our diction from basic level to the most specific possible term, in the following manner:
animal: dwarf mongoose
fish: Mozambique mouth-brooder
pie: blackberry tart
gun: model 1896 Swedish Mauser
tree: pin oak
dog: blue merle Australian shepherd
house: Swisso-Jappo bungalow
The last term is an expression from the early part of the twentieth century for a particular California bungalow with heavy chord beams, like those of a Swiss chalet, that turn up at the end like those of a pagoda. It is doubly vivid for being not only almost unknown but a bit rude, as it is after all racist to use a word like “Swisso.” It is precisely the words you’re not supposed to use that are the most vivid, which is why so many of our best jokes root around in taboos.
For now, it would be helpful to practice reducing your words to the ones that exclude the largest part of the world. “Man” cuts out only half of the human population; “geezer” cuts out all the women, all the young and middle-aged men, and all the sensible, dignified old men, the ones like us (We can’t tell you our age, since it’s a taboo number). Again, the more limited the meaning of a word, the more information it supplies.
So now you can supply your own more-specific words for the following list:
The last word here isn’t even specific enough to tell you if it refers to an undesirable plant among your petunias or something people smoke or bake into brownies.
Now you’ve done the easy part. The hard part is training yourself to reduce the general terms in your own writing. Examine each word and change it until you can’t reduce it to a more specific term.
You’ll note that we have taken a liberty with some of our examples, giving them modifiers to go with the new noun. Here it would be useful to go to the page entitled “When Writing Guides Go Bad” and study it carefully. We won’t say anything more about this now, since we have quarantined the bad writing-advice so that it doesn’t infect the rest of this site.
Originally published in another dementia on July 17, 2011