Language that Shows

When tweaking language during the final stages of revision, strive for clarity first. Language is meant to communicate. Sound, rhythm, pacing, word choice, sentence structure, punctuation, paragraphing—all stylistic choices—should convey the content rather than call attention to themselves. Take Strunk and White’s advice: “The beginner should approach style warily, realizing that it is an expression of self, and should turn resolutely away from all devices that are popularly believed to indicate style—all mannerisms, tricks, adornments. The approach to style is by way of plainness, simplicity, orderliness, sincerity.”

But within the scope of clear language are many choices, and fine writers opt for words that show as well as tell. Let’s look at a passage from Patricia Hampl’s I Could Tell You Stories:

When I am the reader, not the writer, I too fall into the lovely illusion that the words before me which read so inevitably, must also have been written exactly as they appear, rhythm and cadence, language and syntax, the powerful waves of the sentences laying themselves on the smooth beach of the page one after another faultlessly.

But here I sit before a yellow legal pad, and the long page of the preceding two paragraphs is a jumble of crossed-out lines, false starts, confused order. A mess. The mess of my mind trying to find out what it wants to say. This is a writer’s frantic, grabby mind, not the poised mind of a reader waiting to be edified or entertained.

These paragraphs feel effortless, unpretentious, and perfectly clear. But look carefully at Hampl’s choices. In the long, undulating sentence about reading, she pairs “rhythm and cadence” and “language and syntax,” simulating “powerful waves” of sentences. In the paragraph about writing, she omits the “and” in her list: “crossed-out lines, false starts, confused order.” She follows this with two incomplete sentences, giving her readers a visceral experience of stopping and starting. The word “grabby” is colloquial, tactile, and low-brow. Her language shows as well as tells.

Whether readers are conscious of these choices is irrelevant. Readers feel language; we have bodily responses with or without consciousness. Writers succeed when every aspect of their work serves the work’s heartbeat.
–Elizabeth Jarrett Andrew