Last week I made a plea for writers to put their name on their papers.
I wrote, “A title like ‘Full Proposal for Hartline Literary’ may help you identify that document, but in the computer of a Hartline agent, it sticks out like one more penguin on the iceberg.”
Afterward, several readers commented on that phrase, “one more penguin on the iceberg”—how it caught their attention and communicated the essence of the situation.
That's the power of a word picture. And it’s one of the elements I look for when I evaluate a piece of writing. Does the writer have the knack to pick a phrase, to craft a fresh bit of verbal shorthand to sum up a situation and communicate it memorably?
It's a fine balance. You don't want to slather on picturesque phrases like a sixth-grade girl using makeup for the first time. If your wording calls attention to itself, like a parade of alliteration proudly acclaiming your profundity and verbal prowess, you've lost the battle. Readers should never be tempted to pay attention to the man behind the curtain—or even suspect his presence.
But in the hands of a master, word pictures attract and engage—and enable generations of writers to learn from their craft.
This past week, as I continue to read John Steinbeck’s Travels with Charley, I was captivated by his description, circa 1961, of attending a church service.
“Sunday morning in a Vermont town, my last day in New England, I shaved, dressed in a suit, polished my shoes, whited my sepulcher, and looked for a church to attend.”
“Whited my sepulcher.” With three words, he did more to set the tone for this section than most writers could accomplish in a paragraph.
In the next two paragraphs, notice how Steinbeck constructs a succession of brief, vivid word pictures:
“The service did my heart and I hope my soul some good. It had been long since I had heard such an approach. It is our practice now, at least in the large cities, to find from our psychiatric priesthood that our sins aren't really sins at all but accidents that are set in motion by forces beyond our control. There was no such nonsense in this church. The minister, a man of iron with tool-steel eyes and a delivery like a pneumatic drill, opened up with prayer and reassured us that we were a pretty sorry lot. And he was right. … Then, having softened us up, he went into a glorious sermon, a fire-and-brimstone sermon. … He spoke of hell as an expert, not the mush-mush hell of these soft days, but a well-stoked, white-hot hell served by technicians of the first order, This reverend brought it to a point where we could understand it, a good hard coal fire, plenty of draft, and a squad of open-hearth devils who put their hearts into their work, and their work was me. I began to feel good all over. For some years now God has been a pal to us, practicing togetherness, and that causes the same emptiness a father does playing softball with his son. But this Vermont God cared enough about me to go to a lot of trouble kicking the hell out of me. He put my sins in a new perspective. Whereas they had been small and mean and nasty and best forgotten, this minister gave them some size and bloom and dignity. I hadn't been thinking very well of myself for some years, but if my sins had this dimension there was some pride left. I wasn't a naughty child but a first rate sinner, and I was going to catch it.
“ … All across the country I went to church on Sundays, a different denomination every week, but nowhere did I find the quality of that Vermont preacher. He forged a religion designed to last, not predigested obsolescence.”
Please, don’t try to go and write likewise. You’re not John Steinbeck, and it’s not 1961. But what kind of word pictures can you craft for your readers now? As you rework your drafts, where can you cast out a stale description—or revive it by twisting a familiar phrase in a way unexpected? Do that, and your writing won’t look like just one more penguin.