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March 30, 2006

Strunk and Light I: Think About It

"Strunk and Light" is a list of my pet cliché peeves that I keep as a part of my own writing practice. I find that once I've listed something in Strunk and Light, I'm much, much less likely to use it unthinkingly in the generative flow of new writing. It keeps me thinking about language in a much more precise and awake manner. I also gave a list to my students when I was teaching. They took it without commentary, because they were students. However, I expect people who are not my students to disagree. Go ahead! Just remember, this is just my opinion of what is overused or clichéd. The list is long, so I'll be posting it in several segments over the next few days.

Words and expressions go in and out of fashion, just like accessories. Word trends last longer than clothing trends, but they work in exactly the same way: someone goes looking for something distinctive to wear on the page, and finds a word or expression that has such a good effect that all the hipsters in the immediate vicinity pick up on it. Soon the word-accessory is the latest thing in writing, the thing that marks its user as a member of the avant garde. The moment the generality of writers realizes this, the word-accessory’s usefulness – as a hip-defining element, and as a fresh, revealing expression – is gone.

Unfortunately, it takes the generality of writers forever to realize this themselves, so its use drags on and on, becoming more and more degraded until you find it tainting every other page on the bookshelves at Walmart. The thing about word-accessories is that they creep into your wardrobe through your half-conscious mind, and often, you don’t even know you’re wearing them. Be aware. Start your own list.


I. Think about it.
to root through: think about it. What exactly is it about a root (tree root for example) that suggests searching through filing cabinets, or your purse? Why did the noun “root” get turned into such a verb? The original metaphor here is suggested by animals digging through roots for food. Think of a pig snuffling around tree roots after truffles. Think about Roto-rooter. Is this really the image you want to convey?
to throw one’s head back and laugh: try it. Right now. Throw your head back and laugh. It’s actually kind of hard to really laugh in that position—your windpipe has a tendency to get cut off. This is a very affected gesture, the kind that flirting women make in bars. It’s demonstrative of “I’m bursting out in delighted laughter,” and not a natural gesture. Also a cliché that bluff, hearty men in genre fiction fall into. Use advisedly, or not at all.
to slip: being used in place of “put on” as in I slipped into a pair of jeans. This term is supposed to refer to the action of sliding, being slippery, being quick and stealthy, but is now used for all actions that refer to putting clothes on. Not all putting on of clothes is slippy. You shouldn’t slip into jeans – they take time and are awkward to get into. One leg, two legs, pull up, zipper, button. You should slip into something more comfortable—maybe something with no fasteners (please!) Actually, this is also being used in place of “to go” as in She slipped out of the room or The sun slipped behind a cloud. The verb “to go” is nearly invisible and you should use it unless you can find a good reason not to.
"I found myself ...": the only time you should use this is if the character has multiple personality disorder and has just switched personalities mid-action. When you go and do something, you don’t “find yourself” doing it. You already knew you were doing it because, well, you’re doing it. This is a construction people use to avoid having to explain their characters’ motivations (also known as bad writing.) How did your protagonist end up doing this morally ambiguous thing? I dunno, he just found himself doing it. (Yes, yes, I know, sometimes you just zone out. But really, don’t use it.)
shock of hair: no, really, what is a “shock of hair”? is it a brush that sticks up? Or is it wild and wooly, a ‘fro? Or is it long and straight? Or is it dyed? Is a mohawk a shock of hair? A bowl cut? Is a tonsure? What do you see when you hear “shock of hair”? What do your readers see? What’s the origin of this word? Do you know? Are you sure?
helmet of hair: is overused and not really very accurate or detailed enough. Does it mean the surface of the hair is smooth like a helmet, or that the cut is shaped like a helmet, or that the hair is big enough to look the size of a helmet? (Plus, just, yuck.)
fist: as in, carrying something in your fist. Think about it. What is a fist? It’s a tightly closed hand, used for punching or strong gestures. The connotation of “fist” is violence, tension. You only hold something in a “fist” if the hand is closed tightly, and if you want to indicate violence or tension. Don’t use it just ‘cause everyone else does. (this goes double for “tiny fist” or “meaty fist,” and if you’re gonna “clutch” something, don’t you dare do it in your fist!)
to carve out: when used metaphorically. I just read recently that manga has “carved out a parallel market”. Uh, how do you carve out a market? “To carve” means to shape a form by removing material with a sharp instrument. “To carve out” means to remove material to make a hollow space. The metaphoric expression is an extension of to carve out a niche, a niche being actually an empty space in an otherwise solid structure. But the term is now being used, unthinkingly, to mean “to create”. “To create” usually means to put material together where there was no material before—so it’s almost the opposite of “to carve out” (which means to remove material.) This stupidity means the metaphor is dead. Don’t use the expression at all.
to negotiate: as in: He negotiated the sharp switchbacks of the mountain path. Think about this one, It’s a metaphor: negotiation is a give and take process between two parties who have different agendas. Things are offered and turned down and taken back and modified. There’s a back and forth. “Negotiating” sharp switchbacks means that your way is difficult and you have to try to move forward, and move back, and try again a different way. It’s a metaphor for a slow, difficult, back-and-forth process. Nowadays, though, it’s being used directly to mean “to move through” or “to manage”. The metaphor is dead. Don’t use it.
to navigate: used similarly to “negotiate” to mean moving through a psychological or social terrain. This is originally from Latin: “ship” and “to lead”, and means, at its base, to direct a ship’s movements. This is an obvious metaphor for any kind of movement through a space that requires skill. However, it’s terribly overused, to the point that it’s time for a new metaphor or expression. Try something else.

... in our next installment, things you can stop saying now ... please ...


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I throw my head back and laugh all the time. It's so me. And whenever I do, I find myself inadvertently flinging my shock of hair into the face of the person next to me at the bar. If they're cute, it lets me negotiate an intro via profuse apology while giving them an eyeful of my still-extended neck (I'm told I have sexy neck tendons). If they're not, I navigate their pissed-off-ness by reaching for their shoulder, in an "ohmigod I'm so sorry" gesture, pretending not to notice until the last moment the manky tissue clutched in my left fist 'cos where's a girl supposed to put her tissues when she's wearing her best pocket-free hip attire?

One of the words I kept seeing in the mid to late 90s was "preternatural." I first saw it in Anne Rice's Interview With the Vampire (the first and last book of hers that I've read), and soon after it started popping up in both horror and general fiction short stories and novels. I cringe whenever I see it now.

it's funny. now that you've mentioned it, yeah, "preternatural's" been used a lot. but it's never bothered me. i wonder why. betcha it starts to bother me now.

orwell says that a few dedicated journalists can jeer a bad cliche out of existence. dan savage has gotten a new definition of "santorum" into circulation in under two years. i wonder if bloggers could affect language in that way in the real (writing) world.

shailja, a girl is supposed to put her tissues in her bra. the constant back and forth of the hand to the chest draws attention to the breasts.

you mean the swell of the breast, right?

i mean the mound of flesh perched atop the chest, which a deft hand can persist in slipping a tissue behind.

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