There’s a story about the first time the townspeople saw a radio. Tony brought one in from the big city and was going to give a show. Everyone who could go to the town square that afternoon showed up all curious about this thing called a radio.
When the show was over, Franco ran home as fast as he could to tell his father about this new thing, this magic box that brings music and words from far away. Franco’s father couldn’t leave the farm.
Franco’s father asked him, “What is it like?”
“Well,” said Franco, struggling to describe this new wonder of the world.
“You know a lemon? What a lemon looks like?”
His father nodded. “Yes.”
“Well” said Franco, his brows furrowed as he concentrated. “It’s nothing like a lemon.”
~ ~ ~
Can a lemon be used to talk about a radio?
As writers we need to resist the PR fluffery unless it is necessary to convey a feeling, a sense, an attitude. As writers, we also need to write in a way that feels right for the story and right for our self. Readers know when it’s not fitting, when it doesn’t feel right, when it’s awkward.
As writers we have a responsibility to know our language, to use it in such a way as to leave a reader slightly changed from the beginning of your piece, your story. As writers we also have the right to play with language in ways that advance sensemaking and storytelling, unless it’s writing that is purposefully obtuse and designed to challenge and be misunderstood. And so a thing can be what it is unless it isn’t and you say so, and help the reader believe it, to see the same thing that you see.
Reading through the proliferation of writing sites, it seems to me there is a push to make our word usage simpler, to use simple language, use simple phrasing, do away with description, adverbs, adjectives, grammar and to end the use of gentle, intelligent metaphors. Words as blunt instruments, metaphors steeped in sports, war, sex, weather and media. Boring beyond belief.
There is another, smaller sentiment within the proliferation of writing sites that says, find your voice and write to that, regardless of the rules, regardless of the experts’ advice.
Both are true and not true. I’m fascinated by this move to the industrialization, factory-like approach to writing.
Writing that works has a cadence to it; words and sentence length vary. Simplicity in writing is good: it moves the reader along. But simplicity does not equal simple. It is not necessarily one-syllable words and seven-word sentences and four-sentence paragraphs. Neither does simplicity mean boring. If there’s a design equivalent, then it’s everything in the piece should have a purpose and if it does not, then it shouldn’t be there: when in doubt cut it out.
Good writing captures the ear and the heart and the mind and is ultimately, in some way, human and adds to our humanity. By the same token, good writing is often judged by the culture, the times, and where it sits in the spectrum of writing production. Good writing is subjective. There is no accepted standard of the breed of writer as there is in dogs and cats and horses, although there is a website that compares writing samples and spits out “you write like JD Salinger and Margaret Atwood” to far too many people.
Commercially successful writing is not necessarily great writing so much as the telling and selling of a story. Not that there’s anything wrong with telling and selling a story, but there is something sad about dumbing it down, being so efficient in letters and words that we step into the word of language envisioned in Orwell’s 1984.
A good story never goes out of style and that, good storytelling, is all about the writer’s voice, the writers words. And who doesn’t want to read great writing that tells a good story?
Good writing connects words and ideas and concepts and carves the path for the reader to walk alongside, wanting to learn more about the lemon and the radio.