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ASNE Online Ethics Tool

Posted, May. 18, 2004
Updated, May. 18, 2004

QuickLink: A64346

Writing Tool #6: Play with Words

By Roy Peter Clark (more by author)
Senior Scholar, Poynter Institute

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Play with words, even in serious stories. Choose words the average writer avoids but the average reader understands.

Just as the sculptor works with clay, the writer shapes a world with words. In fact, the earliest English poets were called "shapers," artists who molded the stuff of language to create stories the way that God, the Great Shaper, formed heaven and earth.

Good writers play with language, even when the topic is about death:

"Do not go gentle into that good night," wrote Welsh poet Dylan Thomas to his dying father, "Rage, rage against the dying of the light."


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Play and death may seem at odds, but the writer finds the path that connects them. To express his grief, the poet fiddles with language, prefers 'gentle' to 'gently,' chooses 'night' to rhyme with 'light,' and repeats the word 'rage.' Later in the poem, he will even pun about those "grave men, near death, who see with blinding sight." The double meaning of 'grave men' leads straight to the oxymoron 'blinding sight.' Word-play.

The headline writer is the journalist most like the poet, stuffing big meaning into small spaces. Consider this headline about a shocking day during the war in Iraq: Jubilant mob mauls four dead Americans.

The circumstances of the story are hideous: Iraqi civilians attack American security officers, burn them to death in their cars, beat and dismember their charred carcasses, drag them through the street, and hang what's left from a bridge -- all while onlookers cheer. Even amidst such carnage, the headline writer plays with the language. The writer repeats consonant sounds (like 'b' and 'm') for emphasis and contrasts words such as 'jubilant' and 'dead' with surprising effect. 'Jubilant' stands out as well-chosen, derived from the Latin verb that means 'to raise a shout of joy.'

Words like 'mob,' 'dead,' and 'Americans' appear in news reports all the time. 'Mauls' is a verb we might see in a story about a dog attack on a child. But 'jubilant' is a distinctive word, comprehensible to most readers, but rare in the context of news.

Too often, writers suppress their own vocabularies in a misguided attempt to lower the level of language for a general audience. Obscure words should be defined in texts or made clear from context. But the reading vocabulary of the average news user is considerably larger than the writing vocabulary of the typical reporter. As a result, scribes who choose their words from a larger hoard often attract special attention from readers and gain reputations as "writers."

Kelley Benham of the St. Petersburg Times is such a writer:

When they heard the screams, no one suspected the rooster.

Dechardonae Gaines, 2, was toddling down the sidewalk Monday lugging her Easy Bake Oven when she became the victim in one of the weirder animal attack cases police can recall.

The writer's choice of words brings to life this off-beat police story in which a rooster attacks a little girl. 'Screams' is a word we see in the news all the time, but not 'rooster.' Both 'toddling' and 'lugging' are words common to the average reader, but unusual in the news.

Benham uses other words that are common to readers, but rare in reporting: Ventured, belly, pummeling, freaking, swatted, backhanded, shuffled, latched on, hammered, crowing, flip-flops, shucked, bobbed, skittered, and sandspurs.

All of us possess a reading vocabulary as big as a lake, but draw from a writing vocabulary as small as a pond. The good news is that the act of reporting always expands the number of useable words. The reporter sees and hears and records. The seeing leads to language.

"The writer must be able to feel words intimately, one at a time," writes poet Donald Hall. "He must also be able to step back, inside his head, and see the flowing sentence. But he starts with the single word." Hall celebrates writers who "are original, as if seeing a thing for the first time; yet they report their vision in a language that reaches the rest of us. For the first quality the writer needs imagination; for the second he needs skill ... Imagination without skill makes a lively chaos; skill without imagination, a deadly order."


  1. Read several stories in today's newspaper. Circle any surprising word, especially one you are not used to seeing in the news.
  2. Write a draft of a story or essay with the intention of unleashing your writing vocabulary. Show this draft to some test readers and interview them about your word choice and their level of understanding. Share your findings with others.
  3. Read the work of a writer you admire with special attention to word choice. Circle any signs of playfulness by the writer, especially when the subject matter is serious.
  4. Find a writer, perhaps a poet, whose work you read as an inspiration for writing.

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