Thus revealed, the creature buried its nose in the tire-tilled soil...
March 1, 2015
I know I've been away a while...
Category: Miscellany … Technical Stuff

...but long enough to have accumulated 1900 spam comments?! JC on a pogo stick.

Anyway, I wanted to post briefly about writing and common phrases/expressions. I was reading a story by a member of a writing group I recently joined, and she wrote that the character's knuckles had turned white from performing a particular repetitive action. And of course I knew what she meant, and the phrasing wouldn't at all have given me pause if I hadn't been in a mood to ponder such things (which I generally am when I'm reading a piece in order to critique it) -- and I got to wondering about "clichés" and how we can (sometimes) end up confusing the reader when we make an effort to avoid them. For instance, I knew what the author of this story was talking about because the expression is common enough. But I could step up to bat thirty thousand times and endure sixteen million close calls on the freeway and strangle a billion fat-necked babies and my knuckles wouldn't even remotely whiten unless my skin were really dry and I needed to put on some lotion. So if the author had tried to describe the character's knuckles becoming white in some novel, creative way -- without using the well worn phrase -- I might not have had any idea what she meant.

Similarly, in this and another story, an author referred to characters' stomachs "wobbling" and "wiggling" -- and in both instances I paused because that just sounds so alien to me. "Jiggling" I know; we've all heard fat bellies described in that way, so that makes sense to me even though I've never felt the sensation (or at least not that I can remember; I might have as a baby because all babies are kinda chubby) of quivering flesh about my midsection. But in these instances I kind of scratched my head for a bit -- even though I ultimately decided I *thought* I knew what the author meant -- because I had to work to understand the potential attempt at avoiding clichéd phrasing. As much as we as writers strive to communicate ideas in novel ways, sometimes it's perhaps more effective (or at least less distracting) to trot out familiar -- even tired -- expressions.

Not that any of the above discussion is itself novel, mind you -- it comes up a lot in writing. In one story I described breasts as "fluid" because I was averse to calling them the familiar "rippling"; at another point in the same story a reader objected to the word "slathered" to describe the action of heaping butter on pancakes because the word is so often used in that context. (I still don't have a better word for it, though.) But I do think -- and this is potentially more interesting, or at least less frequently discussed? -- that it's interesting how some of these descriptions can be more or less accessible based on the physical appearance of the reader. I might not understand the import of knuckles "turning white" because, as a black man, my knuckles only turn white when they're ashy; I might not be able to picture a stomach "wiggling" because I'm sporting six-pack abs. Attempting to rephrase idioms -- or engage in wordplay based on particular idioms -- can also prove potentially challenging if the reader comes from a different culture or region (or even a "place" of ignorance) where the idiom is unknown or means something else.

-posted by Wes | 11:24 pm | Comments (0)
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