The Fine Line Between Original and Nonsense


“The difference between the almost right word and the right word is…the difference between the lightning bug and the lightning.”

— Mark Twain

I’ve been reading Margaret Atwood’s The Blind Assassin, and it never ceases to amaze me how good she is at crafting original sentences and plots. She has fast become one of my favorite authors. Each book shocks me with how completely different it is from the last.

Anyway, that’s beside the point of this post. I’ve also been reading a lot of first-time writers in an online critique group. Conventional writing advice says to convert cliché and boring descriptions to precise, original ones. This post is going to be about how this advice can lead people astray.

To me, it is better to have a cliché description that is correct than some original bit of nonsense that actually leaves the reader more confused. It is really easy to fall into this trap, because flowery language can sound really good until you think about it (and whether it is the “right word” as Twain put it).

I won’t embarrass anyone by using a real example, but these are pretty easy to come up with. On the first draft, Writer has the sentence:

I wanted to punch him with every fiber of my being.

Writer recalls the advice and decides to take this vague, cliché statement of feeling and “show rather than tell” a more specific and original description. After a few revisions, they are proud of the new version—confident in its detail and originality.

My balled fist seethed with fury, a red flare arcing from my evaporating essence toward Bob. The hum of rage deafened my senses to a pulp of what I used to be.

Hold on. What is going on here? We’ve gone from simple cliché to overly melodramatic. First, we should ask ourselves if this level of drama is necessary. Maybe the correct solution was to just delete the whole sentence, because it was clear from context that the character wanted to punch him. If not, maybe the correct solution was change it to “I wanted to punch him.”

Whenever you start to change things, you should ask yourself: have I made it more correct or less? This question must override any concerns of originality. Rather than draw a reader in, incorrect flower language can push a reader away. This is the point of this post. Sometimes the more original phrasing can be nonsense. It’s a fine line (as we’ll get to in a second).

What does “evaporating essence” mean? This is one of those things that sounds fancy on the surface but is nonsense once you try to think about it. What does “deafened my senses” mean? It is another fancy but partially incorrect phrase. Only one sense can actually be deafened, and though in some circumstances this might work, why not use a more accurate fancy word like “enervated” if we’re going the nonsense route. “What I used to be” isn’t the proper ending. It sounds semi-deep but it’s incorrect and confusing grammar at best and nonsense at worst.

What’s scary is that there are probably first-time writers out there who read these two and would pick the second, when it is clear to me that the original cliché is infinitely better. The cliché gives a “correct” description whereas the creative description is a mess of nonsense. It sounds better, like something a sophisticated writer would write, but no great writer would let that nonsense through the editing phase.

This is going to sound mean, but when agents say they can tell in a few paragraphs if a book is going to be any good, this is the type of thing they’re looking for. A trained eye can easily tell the difference between this fancy nonsense and good creative writing. First-time novelists might think they’re imitating how a professional does it, but they can’t tell the difference yet.

Since the Olympics are on, here’s an analogy. Many people watch gymnastics in awe and think certain routines are absolutely perfect, yet the trained eye of the judges still find over a point in deductions. One must train the writing eye to see the nonsense descriptions even if they sound fancy.

I’ll just caution anyone considering self-publishing in the face of massive rejection by the publishing industry that the rejection may be for this reason. Some people choose self-publishing and hire excellent editors and do it the right way for the right reasons. Self-publishing because it is the only way to get something bad out there is the wrong reason (and glancing through Amazon’s self-published stuff tells me that more than a few people have chosen to go that route for the wrong reasons).

Now let’s look at some original ways to describe things that are not nonsense. This is where Margaret Atwood comes in. She is so good about this. She is inventive with her language, yet the descriptions are correct. They enhance the reader’s experience rather than confuse them.

The orange tulips are coming out, crumpled and raggedy like the stragglers from some returning army. I greet them with relief, as if waving from a bombed-out building; still, they must make their way as best they can, without much help from me.

She makes an original comparison of the tulips to a returning army. The simile is apt and vivid, making it a good one. It puts clear images into our minds, and she reinforces the idea with adjectives that help tailor the comparison toward the elements she wants us to think about. This is a correct way to do original description.

But then it gets even better, because she doubles down on the simile and keeps it going. The main character greets the army of flowers, and she imagines her own building caught in the war. She can’t help them, though.

This conceit is almost too much for mere flowers, but the consistency in tone and image help it cohere into a truly original description that hasn’t gone over the line into nonsense. Context would help here, because the main character is aging and can’t kneel to do her proper gardening. The sadness in the image helps give the reader some empathy for how the character feels, and her inability to help the army enhances her feelings about her inability to help the flowers.

It takes a lot of work to write this way. Atwood came up with a fascinating and original description of tulips, and then took the time to make the entire passage reinforce the simile and shed light on how the main character felt. Too often writers think that originality means taking a cliché and then using a thesaurus to merely replace the boring words with less common ones. This often leads to nonsense.

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