Poynter Online Poynter Online
New UserLogin
Poynter Online Main Page
Design / Graphics
Diversity
Ethics
Leadership
Online
Photojournalism
Writing / Editing
TV / Radio
About Poynter
Seminars
Faculty
Columns
Resource Center
The Poynter Store

Help Poynter


Create Your Personal Page
Add Your Bio
Add Your Photo
Share Your Favorite Links

Signup for Poynter Newsletters
Get Poynter Delivered to Your PDA

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

E-mail this item
Print this Page
Add/View Comments on this Article (1)

More in this series

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."

RELATED RESOURCES

Wanna learn more? Check out our reporting, writing, and editing seminars.

Click here to receive Writer's Toolbox each week by e-mail.

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."

Workshop:

  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.

More in this series:

E-mail this item
Print this Page
Add/View Comments on this Article (1)

Back to Top

  • Rule 6

  • --VIEW ALL--





    Search Poynter Online
    Search Poynter Online
    Search 221 Journalism Sites
    Search 221 Journalism Sites
    Search Poynter Online

    Welcome to Writing Tools: The Book and the Blog
    Welcome to Writing Tools: The Book and the Blog
    New On Poynter
    Space Flight History
    Links to the News

    P1: Independence Day
    Niagara Gazette

    Mexican Election News
    By Juan Camus

    Drawing the Line
    Kelly McBride Comments

    Dogs & Fireworks
    Al's Tuesday Meeting

    NBC & YouTube
    By Amy Gahran

    Laws & Missing Links
    By Amy Gahran

    Net Neutrality & You
    By Amy Gahran

    Good News Conversation
    By Amy Gahran

    The Joke Project
    By Adam Glenn

    Online Credibility
    By Laura Ruel

    Text Ads Work Best
    By Laura Ruel

    Online Leaders Meet
    By Laura Ruel

    Facing the Future
    By Kelly McBride

    Related Faculty
    Related Seminars
    Narrative Writing on Deadline
    Oct. 8-13, 2006
    App. deadline: Aug. 7, 2006

    Beat Reporting: Covering Children
    Nov. 5-10, 2006
    App. deadline: Sep. 5, 2006

    The Complete Assigning Editor
    Nov. 12-17, 2006
    App. deadline: Sep. 11, 2006

    Advanced Copy Editing: A Word-By-Word Approach
    Dec. 3-8, 2006
    App. deadline: Sep. 25, 2006

      Site Map | Search Poynter | Contact Poynter | FAQ | Our Guidelines QuickLink  
      Copyright © 1995-2006 The Poynter Institute
      801 Third Street South | St. Petersburg, FL 33701 | Phone (888) 769-6837
      Site developed & hosted by DataGlyphics, Inc.