Great premium is placed on language in our literary culture today. Is it fresh? Is it witty? Does it dazzle? The question I wish reviewers and publishers would ask about language is “Is it true?” We need writers who name the vast diversities of our reality with language that illuminates rather than obscures.
Truth, of course, is relative. But the truth I’m referring to isn’t singular or objective; it’s resonant, as full of mystery as fact. We’ve all had the experience of reading a passage that describes a familiar object or event in a way we’ve never considered but which feels absolutely right. Here are a few of my favorites:
The rooks too were keeping one of their annual festivities; soaring round the tree tops until it looked as if a vast net with thousands of black knots in it had been cast up into the air; which, after a few moments sank slowly down upon the trees until every twig seemed to have a knot at the end of it. Then, suddenly, the net would be thrown into the air again in a wider circle this time, with the utmost clamour and vociferation, as though to be thrown into the air and settle slowly down upon the tree tops were a tremendously exciting experience. –Virginia Woolf’s “The Death of the Moth”
Woolf’s image of a knotted net is an accurate description of birds rising and returning to a tree. The comparison aids the reader; we see more clearly because of it. Both the image (quite ordinary) and the language (quite simple) help the reader experience this moment. Nothing in this passage calls attention to the language or the author.
She was stretched on her back beneath the pear tree soaking in the alto chant of the visiting bees, the gold of the sun and the panting breath of the breeze when the inaudible voice came to her. She saw a dust-bearing bee sink into the sanctum of a bloom; the thousand sister-calyxes arch to meet the love embrace and the ecstatic shiver of the tree from root to tiniest branch creaming in every blossom and frothing with delight. So this was marriage! She had been summoned to behold a revelation. Then Janie felt a pain remorseless sweet that left her limp and languid.
–Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God
Here’s a passage where language does call attention to itself, but not for the sake of the author’s self-aggrandizement. Rather the extreme word choices here—“panting breath,” “sanctum of a bloom,” “love embrace and the ecstatic shiver of the tree,” “a pain remorseless sweet”—help us understand Janie’s teenage point of view. Janie knows extremes of passion that are inconsistent with the dull prospects of the rest of her life. Inhabiting her perspective is intense, ecstatic, and memorable.
The truth revealed in these passages is dual. First, these authors name their physical reality accurately and beautifully. They represent the “facts” on the page in a manner that is fresh but also accountable to real human experience. Second, they choose details that point through physical reality to some emotional, spiritual, relational, or psychological truth—the inner story.
But it’s possible to create resonant truth with expository language as well:
It began to seem that one would have to hold in the mind forever two ideas which seemed to be in opposition. The first idea was acceptance, the acceptance, totally without rancor, of life as it is, and men as they are: in the light of this idea, it goes without saying that injustice is a commonplace. But this did not mean that one could be complacent, for the second idea was of equal power: that one must never, in one’s own life, accept these injustices as commonplace but must fight them with all one’s strength.
–James Baldwin, “Notes of a Native Son”
Even abstract words, placed well and applied intelligently, can make beautiful prose. Note how Baldwin’s repetitions ring like bells. Note how, despite the complexity of these sentences’ construction and the paradoxical nature of the ideas he’s conveying, his words are quite plain. Above all, he wants to communicate. The integrity of his language extends naturally frm the integrity with which he explores his struggles with racism.
The authors I respect most choose their words with integrity. They do not seek to impress; they seek to discover, to uncover, to name what is. Fresh words serve the story.
So how do we find language like this? I’m no authority; I’m still seeking it myself. But here are a few techniques that serve me well:
- In early drafts, write quickly and plainly. As best as you can, use your natural language. Because you are a unique person with an inherently fresh voice, your language will be fresh if you show up on the page.
- Throughout revisions, return to a journal to reflect on your work. Writing for no audience eliminates strain and self-consciousness from language.
- When clichés appear, take note. Keep going if you’re writing an early draft, but later return to these passages and ask yourself what this easy language is covering up. Clichés usually show us places we’ve taken on others’ explanations of the world rather than inventing our own. They always point to shallowness in our thinking—an acceptable naming of reality rather than a naming that digs.
- Strive to serve the story and not some sense of writerly writing. Choose words that reveal, not conceal. Use the thesaurus to find accurate words, not fancy ones.
- Use the dictionary. Whenever you are uncertain about a word’s meaning or its implications, look it up.
- With each crucial word choice or description, first ask yourself, “Is it true?” Only then ask, “Is it fresh?”
- Read Strunk and White’s Elements of Style every few years. Their advice is spot-on and modeled by their language: “Omit needless words. Vigorous writing is concise. A sentence should contain no unnecessary words, a paragraph no unnecessary sentences, for the same reason that a drawing should have no unnecessary lines and a machine no unnecessary parts. This requires not that the writer make all sentences short, or avoid all detail and treat subjects only in outline, but that every word tell.”
–Elizabeth Jarrett Andrew