February 21, 2017
My wife murders clichés. But because these are unpremeditated, we should probably reduce it to manslaughter.
Once, after a meeting, she was upset that the real issues had not been addressed. "There's a pink elephant on the table," she told me emphatically.
"You mean, 'There's an elephant in the room,'" I offered helpfully.
"No," she replied, "my elephant is pink and it is definitely on the table!"
On another occasion she could tell I was about to say something that could get me in trouble. "You are treading on thin ground, Le Peau!" she warned me. Well, at least if I fell through I wouldn't be in danger of drowning.
Every writing teacher, every book on writing tells us to avoid clichés, those turns of phrase that are so familiar they have lost all color and have no punch left in them. They have become bland and ineffective. The crutch of bad writers. Such advice has even turned into a cliché itself: "Avoid clichés like the plague."
Not only are clichés boring, they can also be problematic if misused. I was reading a recent fantasy novel about an imaginary world that was basically Medieval in nature. At one point a character offers the advice, "Don't look a gift horse in the mouth." Really? Is it possible that the exact same proverb developed in this alternate world as ours? To combat this, Tolkien created dozens of his own such as "The wise speak only of what they know."
Writers and speakers can (and largely should) just cut clichés, but there are two ways to use them effectively. One is to give them a twist. Suppose you are writing a detective novel. Your main character might say, "This guy had been a problem to me for years. As I held the gun I thought about how good it would feel to put him out of my misery." By switching one word, his to my, we give the cliché a twist and make it fresh again, hopefully bringing a smile to the reader.
To contrast something effective in a small way with something big that is unnecessary and counterproductive, try, "Better to light a candle than burn down the whole house."
A second way to make a stale expression much less so is to extend the metaphor the cliché suggests. That's what happens in the first two sentences above. "Murdering a cliché" is not quite a cliché, but it is a somewhat tired metaphor. By extending the metaphor to include manslaughter, we give it a good shot of caffeine.
Perhaps you want to consider the advantages of being sure to get something now versus the slim chance of getting everything later. This might do the trick: "Maybe you shouldn't count your chickens before they hatch, but at least you can have some eggs for breakfast."
If you want to express your dislike for someone, try this: "I held her at arm's length, wishing my arm was longer."
I had a teacher who said, "Just because it's a cliché doesn't mean it's not true." Clichés begin as hard-won pearls of wisdom that have become hidden in shells of overuse. But if we can give a cliché a twist, perhaps it can become the best of all possible pearls.
Credits. Elephant: www.clipartpanda.com/ Eggs: Andrew Le Peau
May 12, 2016
April 26, 2016
Bobby Fischer was a World Chess Champion who stood out as an eccentric genius in a field full of eccentric geniuses. As portrayed in the movie Pawn Sacrifice, he walked out of a chess match complaining about the lighting, ransacked his own hotel rooms looking for bugging devices, thought the Russians were watching him through his TV and believed the US government was listening to him through (wait for it) his dental fillings. Though his mother was Jewish, he was vocally anti-Semitic, holding to many conspiracy theories about Jews.Continue reading "Bobby Fischer Played Tennis"
April 7, 2016
When people hand me a proposal or manuscript for a non-fiction book and ask me for a publishing opinion, we'll talk about a number of issues. But I have one chief diagnostic question. Almost anything and everything an author has to say flows from the answer to this question. It tells writers what kind of vocabulary and images to use, how long the piece should be, how to organize the material, what to leave in, what to take out, and even where to try to publish it.
The question is this:Continue reading "The Key Question I Ask Authors"
Posted by Andy Le Peau at 10:09 AM
May 15, 2015
William Zinsser, author of the classic book On Writing Well, died this week. I have recommended his book more often and sold more copies of it than any other of many excellent options. The first hundred pages are a must for anyone writing non-fiction of any kind.Continue reading "Ode to On Writing Well"
Posted by Andy Le Peau at 9:23 AM
April 14, 2015
"The war tried to kill us in the spring." From the first sentence of The Yellow Birds, we know that we are in capable hands. Kevin Powers is the well-named author who uses his formidable talent with understated power.Continue reading "Understated Powers"
Posted by Andy Le Peau at 10:10 AM
October 29, 2013
What's the best way to hurt the local agriculture market in a country full of starving people? Indiscriminantly give away tons of free food. Relief organizations have learned the hard way that if they want to create a self-sustaining market of locally grown produce, they can't always bring in truckloads of rice from other countries.Continue reading "How to Kill Off Writing"
August 20, 2013
In the musical 1776 there's a classic scene in which Thomas Jefferson starts his solitary work of drafting the Declaration of Independence. Quill in hand, he scribbles down a line, looks at it, then crumples up the paper and throws it on the floor. He sits a moment, thinking, and then scribbles another line. Again, dissatisfied, he throws that on the floor. Then just as he's about to make a third attempt, but before he even writes one word, he crumples up the paper and throws it down.Continue reading "Finding an Opening"
Posted by Andy Le Peau at 10:44 AM
August 14, 2013
Beginnings matter. A writer in search of a way to pull readers in need look no further than a strong opening line. Not all opening lines are created equal. They come in great variety. But they typically arrest attention and set the tone for all that is to come. Here are some of my favorites:Continue reading "Opening Salvo"
August 9, 2013
With short attention spans growing shorter due to so many distractions from iPhones, social media and our own to-do lists, how do writers keep readers with them all the way to the end?Continue reading "One Way to Keep Readers Reading"
June 18, 2013
With so much bad academic writing, we cry, "Paragraphs, paragraphs everywhere, and not a word to read." Yet much academic writing is refreshing and worth savoring. Take Kevin Vanhoozer in Jesus, Paul and the People of God:Continue reading "Stylish Academic Writing 4: A Cup of Cold Water"
June 14, 2013
Why are some academics so addicted to bad writing? Why do they churn out passive verbs like promises from a politician? Why do they multiply abstract nouns like mosquitoes in summer? Why can't they escape from the jungle of jargon? And maybe most important, why can't they be funny?Continue reading "Stylish Academic Writing 3: Why So Bad?"
June 5, 2013
Is my writing flabby or fit? Am I a lean, mean writing machine, or have I invaded heart attack territory? I went to Helen Sword's WritersDiet Test to find out. And find out I did.Continue reading "Stylish Academic Writing 2: WritersDiet Test"
Posted by Andy Le Peau at 9:40 AM
May 30, 2013
Helen Sword rips the veil off one of the worst kept secrets in all of academia: Most academic writing is just plain awful. Jargon-filled, abstract, impersonal, sleep-inducing.Continue reading "Stylish Academic Writing 1: Good News, Bad News"
March 19, 2013
Once I was harassing (in a good-natured way, of course) an editor I knew well from another publisher about a book she had put out. It was a biography that was overwritten and frequently lapsed into a sentimentalized caricature of the main subject. How could she have let that go through? "Oh," she said, smiling. "You should have seen it before we edited it!" I knew exactly what she was talking about.
March 12, 2013
Writers and publishers have always had a love-hate relationship. Mark Twain once offered "the perfect recipe for a modern American publisher" as follows: "Take an idiot from a lunatic asylum and marry him to an idiot woman and the fourth generation of this connection should be a good publisher."*Continue reading "Good Prose 3: The Business of Writing"
March 1, 2013
I've read more than one memoir and wondered, "Did this really happen? Is the author remembering correctly or perhaps just making things up entirely?" Memoir is a knotty genre. Can we trust it? Should we? Can a book be truthful even if it isn't factual?Continue reading "Good Prose 2: The Problem with Memoir"
February 19, 2013
"To write is to talk to strangers."
Tracy Kidder and Richard Todd practice what they preach by starting their book Good Prose quietly, with a sentence at once disarming and muscular. Indeed, the whole book is about this one, deceptively simple, nearly passive, seven-word sentence. Its rhythm is as beguiling as its substance is vital.Continue reading "Good Prose 1: Talking to Strangers"
February 5, 2013
For thirty-five years I've been recommending William Zinsser's On Writing Wel. It is the essential book on the craft, especially for new writers. Zinsser zeroes in on all the myths, bad habits and misunderstandings people have when they start writing.Continue reading "Cut the Clutter"
October 23, 2012
We can't help but think and speak in metaphors. A hot temperature is the "high" for the day and a cold temperature is the "low." The future is "ahead" and the past "behind."
As James Geary says in I Is an Other, virtually the only way to understand something new is in reference to the old. When the theory of plate tectonics was first used to explain continental drift in the 1960s, the earth was compared to rice pudding--hard on the surface but pliable and liquid underneath (pp. 174-75). And electromagnetic fields were compared to two absolutely still corks floating separately in a bowl of water. Push one and the other moves. Not a perfect analogy, but helpful.
Yet not every metaphor works. Greary gives several examples. Here's a headline from the Tulsa World:Continue reading "I Is an Other (4): When Metaphors Strike Out"
October 16, 2012
In the current election cycle, America is once again finding out the power of metaphor. Mitt Romney got some points out of "trickle-down government" in the first presidential debate. Barack Obama failed to counter with one of his own. While the principle famously guiding the Clinton campaign in 1992 was, "It's the economy, stupid," perhaps the better piece of wisdom would be, "It's the Metaphors, Stupid."Continue reading "I Is an Other (3): It's the Metaphors, Stupid!"
October 9, 2012
Metaphors aren't just clever comparisons. Metaphors are the way we think.
In I Is an Other James Greary (see previous blog here) demonstrates this by considering Rebecca. When she reads a headline that says, "Belt Tightening Lies Ahead," or if someone says, "I'll show you the ropes," she has no idea what either means. She doesn't wear a belt, and no one showed her any ropes. Rebecca is an extremely intelligent person who has Asperger's syndrome. Her brain is virtually incapable of processing metaphors. She only understands what is literal (or metaphors whose meaning she has memorized).Continue reading "I Is an Other (2): Wired for Metaphor"
October 4, 2012
Louise, my mother-in-law who died a few years ago at age ninety-one, grew up in southern Illinois with her siblings, including Bertha. The two of them did not get along well, finding various ways to be at odds with each other over the years. Even some time after Bertha died Louise commented to me, "Why, Bertha had a tongue that could sit on the front porch and pick grapes in the back yard!"Continue reading "I Is an Other (1): Awash in Metaphors"
September 25, 2012
A friend asked, "How do I know if I'm called to write?" He'd just read my summary of what J. I. Packer had to say to writers. He was responding to Packer's last point: "Don't attempt to be a writer unless you have got things to say which must be put on paper and are being called by God to do it. Being a writer is as vocational as being a preacher."Continue reading "A Call"
Posted by Andy Le Peau at 9:03 AM
September 11, 2012
J. I. Packer, best known as author of Knowing God, has some sage counsel for writers. In the following video, we get a bit of classic Packer as he offers some clear, straightforward counsel.Continue reading "Advice for Writers from Packer"
Posted by Andy Le Peau at 9:09 AM
August 29, 2012
When I was new to the editing game, just a green, wide-eyed youth, my already grizzled boss, Jim Sire, told me, "When editing something, you can almost always improve it by throwing away the first three paragraphs." It's a bit of wisdom I've carried with me and applied many times for over thirty-five years.Continue reading "Wisdom from a Grizzled Editor"
August 20, 2012
Calvin Miller, best known as author of The Singer from IVP, died August 19. He was a prolific writer, having authored dozens of books, for many of which I worked with him as editor. IVP was proud to have put Calvin on the map of the publishing world with his surprisingly successful "mythic retelling" of the gospel story, a book that went on to sell hundreds of thousands of copies.Continue reading "Remembering Calvin Miller"
Posted by Andy Le Peau at 2:00 AM
August 14, 2012
The grinding dogma of fifth-grade English teachers everywhere has done incalculable damage to the sensitive psyches of countless school children. One of the most onerous dicta of Miss Vera Strict was this: "Never use I when you write." The calcified trauma of this lives on in otherwise normal adults.Continue reading "Write About Yourself"
March 21, 2012
Postmodernism tells us there is no purely objective observer. We all have a bias when we come to a subject, no matter how well trained we might be in science or law or history. This would seem to be a rather difficult problem to overcome. How do we say something is true when it will inevitably be colored by our own perspectives?Continue reading "Not a Straight Story Line"
February 28, 2012
I call them preacher stories--those tales that pass from church to church, book to book, blog to blog. Sometimes corny, sometimes profound, they can inspire, accuse, challenge, amuse, surprise or inform.
I recently came across the same story three times, and it made me wonder.Continue reading "Pastor Beware (and Writer Too)"
January 20, 2012
August 24, 2011
As fellow editor Gary Deddo likes to tell the story, his ninth-grade English teacher was the perfect stereotype. Glasses, tight face, hair in a bun, outdated dress that came up in a tight collar around her neck, leaning over her desk and in a crackly voice exhorting her students, “There’s no such thing as good writing. [Dramatic pause.] There’s only good rewriting.”Continue reading "There's No Such Thing As Good Writing"
April 19, 2011
Even if you have the most profound truths, you can still be profoundly boring. I was once on the pastoral search committee for our church and heard a sermon from a prospective candidate who delivered fourteen points. Yes, count ‘em, fourteen points! There has to be a better way, and there is.Continue reading "Dramatic Non-Fiction"
February 8, 2011
Do you know how important artichokes are? A Google search generated over 9.8 million hits! Astonishing. But that is nothing compared to crochet, which gives over 20.3 million results. So if you are going to crochet an artichoke, well, you are clearly in the forefront of a massive cultural phenomenon!Continue reading "Please Don't Use Google!"
Posted by Andy Le Peau at 7:34 AM
January 25, 2011
How do you keep a reader reading? Inquiring writers and editors of nonfiction want to know. There are many ways to do so. No one single formula should always be employed, but one that many writers and editors use effectively is to provide takeaway.
What’s takeaway?Continue reading "Giving Them Takeaway"
Posted by Andy Le Peau at 7:56 AM
October 6, 2010
My latest excursion in literary tourism took me just fourteen miles from our offices in Westmont when I recently visited the birthplace of Ernest Hemingway with some friends. The house in Oak Park, Illinois, has largely been restored to its original condition.
Here young Ernest joined in prayers with his grandfather Abba, a Civil War hero for the Union who led a “colored brigade.” Here he was entertained, along with his siblings by the stories spun by his father. Here he heard his mother, a veteran of New York’s Metropolitan Opera, offer music lessons. And so pieces of the influence on Ernest as a writer begin to emerge.Continue reading "The Man's Man of Letters"
Posted by Andy Le Peau at 7:46 AM
September 29, 2010
It’s one of the most common and one of the dullest tools that writers or speakers pull out of their toolboxes—quoting a dictionary definition when trying to make a point. It happens every day whether it’s a blogger, a teacher, a preacher or a speaker. Webster gets quoted to define some painfully ordinary word like professional or accidental or addiction. Why is this such a problem?Continue reading "Please Don't Use the Dictionary!"
August 20, 2010
In Phaedrus, Socrates muses on the merits of writing. Surprisingly to our minds, he is skeptical. Why? It is a recipe for forgetfulness. We won’t have to exercise our memories anymore. Knowledge of a subject, after all, is much more valuable than a written account of the same thing. The only virtue of writing was as a guard against the forgetfulness of old age.
So Nicholas Carr, in The Shallows, introduces us to the first Luddite in his book on how the Internet changes our brains. (See part one of my review here.) In chapter four he offers a fascinating overview of the history of the written word and how each change created changes in us and in society.Continue reading "The Shallows 2: A Brief History of Reading"
Posted by Andy Le Peau at 7:29 AM
August 18, 2010
Nicholas Carr made a splash with his Atlantic cover story "Is Google Making Us Stupid?" which I discussed here. Now in The Shallows he brings a full-length book to bear on the question, and it's a dandy.
The subtitle, "What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains," is very descriptive. In this serial review, I'll touch on some of the evidence he offers, a mix of anecdotal and scientific.Continue reading "The Shallows 1: A Change of Mind"
July 15, 2010
Those who know my wife, Phyllis, know that she is a larger-than-life personality. Those who know me, know that I am not. We are the poster children for Opposites Attract. I've often said that Phyllis can strike up a conversation with a fencepost, and get the post to do most of the talking!Continue reading "Dedicated to the One I Love"
June 1, 2010
Everybody does it. Besides that, it's not wrong. In fact, sometimes it can be a beautiful thing. No, I'm not talking about that! I'm talking about ending sentences with a preposition.Continue reading "That's Unheard Of!"
April 28, 2010
“Always make an outline before you start writing.” Isn’t that what your fifth grade teacher told you? Well, I’m sorry to break this to you, but Miss Whitebread was wrong. In my continuing series of Stupid Things You Were Taught in School (see here and here), let me deconstruct this bad boy.Continue reading "Miss Whitebread Was Wrong"