How to Roll Your Eyes in Writing

WHICH OF THESE two sentences is correct?

  • Sherry was appropriately dressed for school in baggy jeans and tie-dyed hair.
  • Sherry was “appropriately” dressed for school in baggy jeans and tie-dye hair.

The answer? Either or both, depending. The first sentence is delivered with a straight face; the second is accompanied with an exaggerated eye roll. The writer of the first sentence trusts his readers to get the sarcasm, but the second writer, by placing the word “appropriately” in quotation marks, has erased all doubt as to his meaning.

Let’s look at another example:

The impoverished people making over $100,000 a year are having to do without their trips to Hawaii these days.

Surely everyone will get the sarcasm, won’t they? But if you’re not quite certain, plunk in a strategically placed pair of quotation marks:

The “impoverished” people making over $100,000 a year are having to do without their trips to Hawaii these days.

So when you need to roll your eyes in writing, often the simplest possible way is to rely on punctuation. ♦ PM

You Too Can Write Like Shakespeare!

OR AT LEAST somewhat!

So today let’s begin with three ways of saying basically the same thing.

  • I sure feel bad about what I just did to the king! I mean, it’s so bad that if I dipped my hand in the ocean, the whole thing would turn red with blood!
  • The culpability for the king’s demise weighs heavily upon me. Were I to submerge my digits in the briny substance that encircles our terrestrial orb, its liquescent fluid would no longer be emerald, but would rather become rubicund.
  • Will all great Neptune’s ocean wash this blood
    Clean from my hand? No, this my hand will rather
    The multitudinous seas incarnadine,
    Making the green one red.

I assume you can tell that the first example was not written by Shakespeare. It is modern informal English, the kind we hear spoken around us.

But what about the second example? It uses a lot of fancy words—culpability, demise, digits, terrestrial, liquescent, rubicund, and so forth. We’re always being told to write using unusual, interesting words, not trite everyday ones, aren’t we?

The second example does that, all right. Problem is, it’s not real English: it’s gobbledygook. That’s writing that sets out to be impressive and ends up needing a translator. If your English teacher returns a piece of writing to you with “Write in English!” blazoned across the front page, chances are you’ve written gobbledygook.

So am I saying the second example isn’t English? All the words in that passage can be found in most any English dictionary. But it contains way too many Latinate words—words with Latin roots. Those words are going to slow down even a person who knows what all of them mean. Your reader is going to pick his way through the mess and end up scratching his head and saying, “Come again?” And many readers will abandon the quest after the first sentence.

What’s even worse is that often people who write like this are trying to be so impressive that they resort to using words they’ve never encountered outside a thesaurus or dictionary. The result can be hilariously disastrous. More on this in a later post.

Let’s take a look now at the third passage, written by the master himself. Does he use any Latinate words? Yep—exactly two! I’m sure you can spot them: multitudinous and incarnadine. The latter term, by the way, was created by Shakespeare; you can do that if you know the rules of word creation. He simply took the Latin incarnatio and replaced the ending with the suffix “adine.”

The rest are just ordinary everyday words, mostly derived from German: wash, clean, blood, hand, green, red. But those two words from the Latin spice up the passage without overwhelming it. They actually add pizzazz.

Realistically, you and I will likely never write like Shakespeare. But if we just imitate him in this one matter, sticking to simple words most of the time but adding enough of the others to spice it up, our writing will benefit and our readers will thank us. ♦ PM


How to Write a Book

HUH? WHAT? Are you just kidding? EVERYBODY knows how to write a book! You just plant your back porch in a comfy chair, and start hammering the keyboard. In due course, you have a book.

Ah—and if only it were that easy. But if it were, finishing a book would be easier than finishing off a Klondike Bar. Alas, every month, thousands of aspiring authors write the first few paragraphs of America’s next best seller, only to have it soon languishing on a shelf somewhere, gathering dust.

Why? Well, many are the reasons, but one of the biggest is that writing a book triggers the “intimidation factor.” It’s one thing to write a 15-page report for a high school or college class, but quite another to face grinding out a book of, oh, let’s say, 365 pages.

And why 365? Because that’s a single page per day, for a year. Maybe you can’t crank out a book that size in a week or a month, but can you write one page a day?

Many of us who write to encourage other writers call this the “salami technique” (and if you’re a vegetarian, you can find big logs of veggie salami in many health-oriented shops). As you know, if you were to sit down and try to polish off a 24-inch roll of salami all in one sitting, you’d probably fail in the attempt and start turning green just before ralphing up the whole business before finishing (no offense to guys named “Ralph”!).

But let’s say instead that for a solid year, you ate just a single slice of salami per day—one 365th of a roll. Maybe in a sandwich. Maybe in a casserole. Maybe mixed into a salad. Think you could do that? Quite likely! And if you can do that, you can also plant yourself in front of a computer and refuse to get back up until you have written a page—or if you prefer, 300 or 400 words. Most books of the standard dimensions of 6 x 9 inches have around 400 words per page, give or take.

It’s a LOT easier to commit to a smaller writing challenge than to one that could turn out to be overwhelming. In a Writer’s Digest article a few years back, prolific author Stephen King shared that he refuses to eat breakfast until he’s written 1,500 words. Now, you don’t even have to write that much to turn out one 365-page book per year. If you’d been doing that most of your adult life, how many books would you have by now? ♦ KM