Someone told me recently that I use too many big words in my writing, and that I should just use simple words when I write. This sort of feedback can be invaluable to a writer. Maybe I should use easier words when I’m writing. Instead of invaluable, I could use the word useful. Word choice is probably the most difficult task that writers get into when writing, especially in poetry. In previous columns we have talked about keeping your writing sounding natural. True, there are words that don’t sound natural when you use them. It might be an unusual word, or a really really BIG word. Or even an unnecessarily difficult word. I think it’s not a matter of using a big word or a small word, a complex word or a simple word, it’s a matter of using the RIGHT word.
The English language is a blessing and a curse. The English language has more words than any other language on earth. This makes it a very difficult language to learn. It can also be very difficult to work with. But being a native speaker of the biggest language in the world is a blessing for writers. Writers strive to express an idea. Having more words to express an idea is a good thing. In the English language, we have many many words that mean the same thing. Except for the fact that they don’t. Each word has a subtle shade of meaning. Let’s look at the example I stated above. I used the word invaluable when I could have used a synonym ( a word that means the same thing) that was probably more understandable. But when I say useful, I mean something that has many uses. When I say invaluable, I mean something that has SO much value, you can’t even calculate it. Invaluable is the much stronger word, and that’s why I chose it.
You can do the same thing as a writer. Don’t worry about the complexity of your vocabulary, but definitely think about the correctness of your vocabulary. There is an exact word for what you are trying to express. Now, you just have to go out and find it.
Speaking of which, do you have any words that you consider your favorites? How about your least favorite words? Me, personally, I hate the word “happy”. I don’t dislike the concept of happy, I just think it’s a terrible word for such a wonderful thing. Please log in and share your thoughts. Until then, I wish you richer writing.
-Teresa Sari FitzPatrick
Last week we talked about using rhyme in poetry. This week we will talk about another technique poets use to enrich their poetry—meter. Most of the poetry that you will read from the 18th and 19th centuries used both rhyme and meter. But many poets used meter in their poetry without making it rhyme. Here’s an example of metered, unrhymed poetry, also called blank verse:
A shape with lion body and the head of a man,
A gaze blank and pitiless as the sun,
Is moving its slow thighs, while all about it
Wind shadows of the indignant desert birds.
-William Butler Yeats, “The Second Coming”
Metered poetry refers to poetry that repeats a particular rhythm in each line. The most commonly used meter in poetry is called iambic pentameter. It is probably the most widely used meter because it is very close to natural speech, and as we said last week, a more natural-sounding poetry is a good thing. William Shakespeare actually wrote all of his plays using iambic pentameter. This a good example of using meter without using rhyme. Here’s an example of iambic pentameter in a line from one of Shakespeare’s plays:
If music be the food of love, play on.
(from Twelfth Night)
As you can see, the words of these lines follow a rhythmic pattern which goes Da DUM Da DUM Da DUM Da DUM Da DUM. The Da’s and the DUM’S are called iambs, or beats, and because there are five sets of them (penta referring to five like the five sides of a pentagon), that makes iambic pentameter. And speaking of Shakespeare, if you really want to enrich your own writing, make yourself very familiar with William Shakespeare. He is considered the greatest writer in the English language. Or get yourself into the habit that Francie Nolan had. She was the main character of the book A Tree Grows in Brooklyn. Every night before bed, she read one page of Shakespeare and one page of the Bible. If you do this also, it will greatly enrich your knowledge of language, and so enrich your writing. Speaking of bibles, I recommend reading one based on the King James Version. It’s full of beautiful writing. I started reading Shakespeare and the Bible when I was a teenager, but unfortunately I started with a bible I was given in Catholic school. Boooring. I didn’t even know there was a difference between bibles. There is. Once I started reading the Revised English Bible, I could see why reading the bible to become a good writer was good advice.
I would love to see some examples of iambic pentameter, or any other regular meter that you have used in your poetry. And if you have a favorite line of Shakespeare, or a favorite Bible verse, please share that with us as well. Until next time, I wish you richer writing.
On Monday, January 23, 2012, the American Library Association announced the 2012 Newbery, Caldecott, and Printz Award winners.
Congratulations to Jack Gantos for Dead End in Norvelt, which was awarded the 2012 Newbery Medal. The Newbery Medal is awarded every year to recognize the most distinguished American children’s book published in the previous year. Librarians offer this prize to encourage good writing in children’s literature. Also recognized are Newbery Honor winners Thanhha Lai for Inside Out & Back Again and Eugene Yelchin for Breaking Stalin’s Nose.
The Caldecott Medal was awarded for great artwork in the best American picture book of the prior year. Congratulations to author-illustrator Chris Raschka for A Ball for Daisy. The 2012 Caldecott Honor winners are Blackout by John Rocco, Grandpa Green by Lane Smith and Me…Jane by Patrick McDonnell.
The Printz Award for excellence in Young Adult literature was awarded by the Young Adult Library Services Association to author John Corey Whaley for Where Things Come Back. The 2012 Printz Honor Books are Why We Broke Up by Daniel Handler, The Returning by Christine Hinwood, Jasper Jones by Craig Silvey, and The Scorpio Races by Maggie Stiefvater.
These books are owned (or on order) at libraries throughout the Delaware Valley, including the Free Library of Philadelphia, Bucks County Public Libraries, Delaware County Library System, and the Montgomery County Library Consortium.
OK, here’s one for all of you poets out there. To rhyme or not to rhyme, that is the question. For hundreds and hundreds of years, poets wrote poems that rhymed. But then, in the last century or so, poets began writing a different kind of poetry. It was called free verse and it pretty much got rid of the technique of using words that rhymed at the end of the poetic line. Nowadays, rhymed poetry is the exception, not the rule. The reason for this is probably that rhymed poetry is now considered a much more formal, even stuffy way of writing poetry. Often, to make a rhyme at the end of a line, you have to change the word order. The rhymes will work, but the word order may sound strange. The line of poetry doesn’t sound like anything anyone would ever say. Here’s an example:
“For on thy cheeks the glow is spread
That tints thy morning hills with red;
Thy step, -the deer’s rustling feet
Within thy woods are not more fleet;–William Cullen Bryant, “America”
Nowadays, poets who use rhyme, and use it well, write rhyming poetry that is very natural-sounding. Sometimes when you are reading rhymed poetry that is very well written, you won’t even realize that each end line rhymes. That’s because there is so much interesting content within the line or within the structure of the poem that the rhyme becomes merely a lovely addition to the poem, not the sole reason for it. Here’s an example of recent rhymed poetry which flows very naturally without a convolution, or twisting of the language:
… first rubythroat
in the fading lilacs, alyssum in bloom,
a honeybee bumbling in the bleeding heart
on my gelding’s grave while beetles swarm
him underground. Wet feet, wet cuffs,
little flecks of buttercup on my sneaker toes,
bluets, violets crowding out the tufts
of rich new grass the horses nose…-Maxine Kumin, “Whereof the Gift is Small”
You may also notice in the first few lines of the poem, the use of off-rhyme, or words that sound alike, but don’t rhyme perfectly “throat” and “heart”, “bloom” and “swarm”. While poets don’t use rhyme in poetry as frequently as they used to, they do use lots of other techniques to make their poetry rich. We have already talked about similes, and seen how similes can be used to make poetry richer. Here’s another great example of a poetic use of simile:
A road comes up to my face and stands like a mirror
showing everything that has led me to it: a bed
soft like bruised fruit, a whole lime garden bruised
by the afternoon shade, and his book’s hard spine
breaking with the day.
-Valzhyna Mort “Island”
Join me next week, and we will talk about some of the other techniques that poets can use to enrich their poetry. Until then, I wish you richer writing.
A simile is a comparison between two things using the words “like” or “as”. Enriching your writing by using similes is as easy as…I’ll bet you thought I was going to say “pie.” It’s a simile you have probably heard before. That’s the trouble with similes. They can be used in all types of writing from stories to essays to poems, but there are certain things you have to watch out for. Some similes have been so overused that they have become cliché. The best way to enrich your writing using similes is to come up with comparisons that no one has ever thought of before. You don’t want to say the same things that someone else has already said. That’s one of the reasons you’re a writer. You have something to say that you don’t believe anyone has said before. Or you have ideas that no one else has had. Using similes is a great way to show your originality. But like any technique you use to enrich your writing, it takes work and imagination to put the technique to use.
So let’s go back to the simile I used at the beginning of this article: “easy as pie.” It is a very common expression. Frankly, I don’t know how it became such a common figure of speech. I mean, what’s so easy about pie? Have you ever tried to make a pie? It is no easy task. You have to mix the flour with just the right amount of butter and liquid. You can’t over-mix it or the crust will be too hard. If you under-mix it, the dough won’t hold together. So what’s easy about pie? Eating it? Sure, it’s tasty, but the filling falls out sometimes, or the crust breaks apart and you don’t get a good mix of filling and crust in every bite. Personally, I don’t think there is anything easy about pie. Maybe whoever came up with the saying was trying to be sarcastic. But sarcasm is a technique we will talk about in a future column. For now, let’s get back to similes.
One of the prettiest similes I ever came across in my reading was in a poem by Pablo Neruda. He is a great poet. In his poem, Ode to Birdwatching, Neruda is amazed that such a voice, such music can “come from a throat as small as a pinky finger.” Comparing a throat to a pinky finger—now that takes some imagination. Another one of my favorite similes, even though it comes from a song, not a poem or a story, is from the song “21 questions” by 50 Cent. “I love you like a fat kid loves cake.” That one always makes me laugh.
So let’s go back to our original simile and see if we can’t come up with something better. If I think about easy, I think about the easiest day of my week. That would be Sunday, when I spend an entire day watching football. So, my simile would have to be: Using similes is as easy as watching football on Sunday.
Now it’s your turn. Do you have a favorite simile? Are there any good similes in the book you are now reading? Or, can you think of another simile using the phrase “as easy as…” I look forward to reading what you will post. I’ll talk to you next week about some more ways to enrich your writing. If you have any particular literary techniques you would like me to cover, just let me know. Until then, I wish you richer writing.
Teresa Sari FitzPatrick
If you are reading this blog, you probably love writing. And if you love writing, you probably love it when someone tells you your writing is really good. Whether you get that response from a friend, a parent, a teacher, or even an editor, nothing feels better than getting a good reaction to something you’ve written.
So how do we get that reaction? Beyond the normal rules of good writing (proper grammar, spelling, and sensible structure), there are many techniques you can use to make your writing richer and more pleasant to read. Let’s call them tricks of the writing trade.
Every week in this blog, I hope to discuss lots of these techniques and how to use them. I will give you examples of each technique, and hopefully, you can get back to me with examples of your own, whether you write them yourself, or find them in something you are reading. Great writers have great techniques at their disposal, and you can have them too. It may take some thinking and some imagination to put these techniques to work, but once you know them, you will always have them available to you.
It is fun to write, but it’s even more fun to write well, using a little imagination to make your writing even richer. Then, when you share your writing, whether its poetry, stories, essays, whatever, you will know that your writing is as rich as you can make it. And who knows, maybe you will even end up getting published! So, I hope you’ll join me next week. We will discuss an easy technique you can use in all sorts of writing. See you then!