After reading this article on How to write a sentence and How to read one by Stanley Fish, I promptly downloaded the book and have had a lovely time reading it. I have a slight addiction to writing books, and I sometimes wonder if I enjoy reading about writing more than actually writing as it requires far less effort.
Hopefully, Fish’s book will inspire to me to write more. The book resonated with me as I have always thought that writing is a bit like painting – a broad stroke here, a dab there – and Fish uses the same analogy. He loves writing and words, rejoices in beautifully written sentences, and explains how to make the magic happen in your own writing.
Both the article and the book quote many wonderfully written sentences and, for me, highlight the paucity of language in the media. A friend and I play a game whereby we cram a sentence with the cliches that abound in news-writing. One I particularly hate is “wreak havoc” which has been thoroughly thrashed throughout this season of storms (gosh, alliteration and assonance all in one sentence!).
A Google search on the phrase brings up more than five million hits. The latest only an hour earlier in the headline ”space storm could wreak havoc in gadget-driven world.”
What does wreak even mean? It means cause, inflict or avenge. It is a tidy phrase for a headline but woefully overused. Every storm that blasted, barreled, slammed and swept through Queensland, New Zealand, the Pacific and now even space, wreaked havoc. It is lazy writing. If the same language is going to be used every single time, why bother training journalists at all? Just drop a few stock phrases around the different events and you have your story.
Every winter, snow storms create winter wonderlands, and every summer temperatures soar. On New Year’s Eve revelers, well, revel. A celebrity scandal always shocks and saddens someone, while political scandals create a storm (but don’t wreak havoc) and a furor. When was the last time you said to someone: “Let’s go and revel and see what havoc we can wreak.”? Not only are they cliches, they are anachronisms. Most people go out to party and cause some damage. Or raise some hell!
The English language is so rich, there is practically a verb or adjective for every concept we care to imagine, yet so much of what we now read in the media is banal.
Another very good writing book is Writing Tools – 50 Effective Strategies for Every Writer by Roy Peter Clark. One of the strategies he suggests is to “choose words the average writer avoids but the average readers understands.”
We all have a larger pool of words we know, but habits form and writers, especially journalists, tend to revert to favourite words when under pressure.
Well not all. Having read Fish’s book, I’m seeking examples and here is a lovely one by Robert Fisk in the Independent: “Rumors burned like petrol in Bahrain yesterday…” Splendid.
The Fish article and book quote many beautiful and powerful sentences, but these are two of my favourites:
“Never shall I forget the small faces of the children whose bodies I saw transformed into smoke under a silent sky.”
Elie Wiesel Night
The horror of the Holocaust captured in one sentence.
And love’s first kiss:
We kissed, once only, so dry and shy, it was like two leaves colliding in air.
Laurie Lee, Cider with Rosie.