The new media environment makes communication skills a greater asset than ever. And also makes them easier and cheaper to acquire. On Thursday, I suggested some relatively painless and fun ways to turn writing woes into punchy prose, via a few of the many free services now available on the Internet. Here are a few more:
1. Spot and replace clichés. Here’s a list of clunkers like “rear its ugly head,” “sadder but wiser,” and “few and far between.” These expressions may once have been fresh. Not now. Note how many extra words they use to say something quite simple, like “arose,” “chastened,” and “rare.” Extra words rarely improve our writing. Here’s another list, and this site offers a huge collection.
2. Alternatively, we can give the cliché a twist that captures our intended meaning: For example, consider the semi-wise old saw; “Never put off until tomorrow what you can do today.” If we are short of time today, the opposite is of course better advice: “Never do today what we can put off till tomorrow.” But we may actually be in a position best captured by “Never put off until tomorrow what we—perhaps—should not be doing at all!” Amended that way, the cliché may unexpectedly promote fresh thinking.
3. Figures of speech can spice up writing. Unfortunately, many of us tend to overuse the most common figures, like the simile (as/as, for example, “as old as the hills” or “as mad as a hornet”). The simile morphs quickly into … another cliché. Here is a handy tutorial offering twenty figures of speech, some of which you may never have heard of but might turn out to be quite good at, once you practice. One is litotes, understating a situation to make a point:
“Are you also aware, Mrs. Bueller, that Ferris does not have what we consider to be an exemplary attendance record?”
(Jeffrey Jones as Principal Ed Rooney, Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, 1986)
Litotes is often more powerful than its opposite, hyperbole, or exaggeration. Note: The secret to making hyperbole work is that it can’t just be exaggeration. It has to be just the other side of possibility to enliven writing: “When Jake got the news about his car, he went into orbit.”
4. Not sure whether one of those new words that keep cropping up is catching on … or dropping off? Attracting favorable attention at birth says little about the likelihood that a newly minted word will reach adulthood. Reviewing past “words-of-the-year” lists is instructive. One of them, metrosexual, gradually faded from use after enjoying a vogue last decade. Another—plutoed (“demoted or devalued”)—didn’t survive the brief hubbub over that planet’s demotion to “dwarf planet” in 2006.
5. When writing about yesteryear’s top trends, we can get expert help. At our fingertips at The People History (entry portal pictured above) is a wealth of information for background on key news events, how much things cost, movies, fashion, sports, TV, music, technology and other such from specific years in modern history, and from eras (20’s, 30’s, 40’s, 50’s, 60’s 70’s, 80’s, 90’s and 2000s), and also in benchmark years like “fifty years ago today.”
Now here’s the pro writer’s most valuable secret, yours for free: The difference between people who get paid for writing and enjoy it and people whose careers suffer because they find writing an unpleasant chore is often their relative willingness to use the sort of help described here and in the the previous post. None of this will turn anyone into a Nobel Prize winner for Literature. It’s more like using the directory instead of wandering around for hours hoping to get lucky. Most of us will settle for that approach.
Next: What’s happening with the traditional media? What do we need to know about risks and benefits?
Denyse O’Leary is co-author of The Spiritual Brain.