Updated: Jan 13
Last week, I talked to you about the importance of adding keywords in your writing, especially for SEO purposes. Today, let's play with these words, and not be afraid to experiment with word choice to make your content stand out from the crowd! In his book, Writing Tooks: 50 Essential Strategies for Every Writer, Roy Peter Clark tells us to "choose words the average writer avoids, but the average reader understands." As writers, we should keep in mind that ultimately, we are creating art, especially when we are working our marketing magic. To cast a spell on your readers, let me explain how language helps us create art that sells.
The History of Writers as Shapers
Before writers were officially called "writers," they were called "shapers," because they molded language into stories. Think about the earliest stories: oral tradition. Stories grew and grew, changed, formed, and conformed to the traditions and culture of where the stories took place. Then these stories were written down. Some became very famous, like Aesop's fables. But why? Language. Take, for example, the first sentence of the parable, "The Wolf and the Lamb: "WOLF, meeting with a Lamb astray from the fold, resolved not to lay violent hands on him, but to find some plea to justify to the Lamb the Wolf's right to eat him." Here, not only do we have exquisite language, but a commentary on how words can convince one animal, without violence but through words, that the Wolf should eat the Lamb.
Words Create Life even in the Face of Death
If the above example isn't using language to shapeshift, then take it as a lesson on how powerful writing is in convincing people to buy your product. Content isn't king; it's the kingdom--I read that the other day and I couldn't agree more. Consider what an empire is: a society full of the good, the bad, and the ugly. Shift through the nonsense and write words that create life even in the face of death.
As Clark explains, "Good writers play with language, even when the topic is death." He uses Dylan Thomas' poem "Do Not Go Gentle into that Good Night," where Dylan pleas, "Rage, rage against the dying of the light." Thomas "fiddles" with word choice: gentle over gently and the repetition and rhyme throughout the poem. It casts a familiar and comforting tone on a complex and depressing topic.
"Too often, writer's suppress their vocabularies in a misguided attempt to lower the level of language for a general audience."
-Roy Peter Clark
The Average Reader's Vocabulary
A vital point Clark makes is that people's reading vocabularies are more comprehensive in scope than that of an author's writing vocabulary. You don't have to write fancy or obscure words or phrases to write well. You can still keep your Flesch Reading Scores at a higher rate and be clear in what you say. We can write like M. F. K. Fisher, one of America's greatest essayists, who "uses no elaborate metaphors...or easy puns," as Clark tells us. Instead, she uses "precise words and images that transport us from our own time and place to that little room long ago." Here is a part of the example he uses:
"The room had been meant for tools, I assume. It was big enough for a cot, which was always tidy, and an old Morris chair, and a decrepit office desk...From the roof beams hung slowly twirling bundles of half-cured tobacco leaves which Charles go through some strange dealins from Kentucky" - M.F.K. Fisher
Fisher's writing is in stark contrast to the "hallucinatory wordplay" of Antonio Lobo Antune's Act of the Damned:
"I surfaced from the sheets, the night dripping from my pajamas and my feet as the iron claws deposited my arthritic cadaver on to the carpet, next to the shoes full of yesterday's smell. I rubbed my firsts into my battered eyes and felt flakes of rust fall from the corners."
-Antonio Lobo Antune
Cleanse Yourself of Word Complacency
As Clark tells us, "Even those who prefer a much plainer style need an occasional swim in the surrealistic sea or language--if only to cleanse us of our word complacency." How true is this!? The foreboding feeling that too many metaphors or complex words will confuse your reader could be your lack of imagination--or fear of it! If you get too comfortable with your content, then you might be settling for complacency. Get out there and write something worth reading. Shape and share your words with me!
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Aesop's Fables, by Aesop. (n.d.). Retrieved from https://www.gutenberg.org/files/21/21-h/21-h.htm#link2H_4_0001
Clark, R. P. (2008). Writing Tools: 55 Essential Strategies for Every Writer. Columbus, GA: Little, Brown.