While marinating ideas for my next writing project, I’ve been scrounging the web for articles on improving my prose, and I wanted to share one I thought was particularly good. It’s from bad boy Chuck Palahniuk, who’s on the warpath against what he dismisses as abstract “thought” verbs:
These include: Thinks, Knows, Understands, Realizes, Believes, Wants, Remembers, Imagines, Desires, and a hundred others you love to use.
The list should also include: Loves and Hates.
And it should include: Is and Has, but we’ll get to those, later.
Until some time around Christmas, you can’t write: Kenny wondered if Monica didn’t like him going out at night…”
Instead, you’ll have to Un-pack that to something like: “The mornings after Kenny had stayed out, beyond the last bus, until he’d had to bum a ride or pay for a cab and got home to find Monica faking sleep, faking because she never slept that quiet, those mornings, she’d only put her own cup of coffee in the microwave. Never his.”
Instead of characters knowing anything, you must now present the details that allow the reader to know them. Instead of a character wanting something, you must now describe the thing so that the reader wants it.
In short, no more short-cuts. Only specific sensory detail: action, smell, taste, sound, and feeling.
Of all the arts, I think writing tends to veer toward the abstract and away from the concrete. After all, we’re working with words, which are abstract representations of ideas, emotions, and our experiences in the real world. Little wonder that so many generations of writers have risen up and declared war on encroaching fuzziness in both poetry and prose.
The Imagist Poets of the early 20th century vowed “To use the language of common speech, but to employ always the exact word, not the nearly-exact, nor the merely decorative word.”
Here’s an example from another bad boy of literature, Ezra Pound, from his “Cathay Translations,” his interpretation of the Chinese poet Rihaku:
The Jewel Stairs’ Grievance
The jeweled steps are already quite white with dew,
It is so late that the dew soaks my gauze stockings,
And I let down the crystal curtain
And watch the moon through the clear autumn.
Pound offered the following explanation:
Note.—Jewel stairs, therefore a palace. Grievance, therefore there is something to complain, of. Gauze stockings, therefore a court lady, not a servant who complains. Clear autumn, therefore he has no excuse on account of weather. Also she has come early, for the dew has not merely whitened the stairs, but has soaked her stockings. The poem is especially prized because she utters no direct reproach.
It’s a pleasure to read and re-read this short poem to discover the richness of the images and the emotional responses they trigger. Master poets know how to energize language to evoke a bounteous experience in a condensed space. Similarly, a good prose writer packs more punch when he sheds clutter and focuses on the concrete.