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ASNE Online Ethics Tool

Posted, Oct. 12, 2004
Updated, Oct. 12, 2004

QuickLink: A72506

Writing Tool #27: Riffing for Originality

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

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Riff on the creative language of others.

The day after the vice-presidential debate of 2004, I read a clever phrase that contrasted the appearance and styles of the two candidates. Attributed to radio host Don Imus, it described the differences between "Dr. Doom and The Breck Girl." Of course, the tough and dour Dick Cheney was Dr. Doom. And, because of his handsome hair, John Edwards was likened to a pretty girl in a shampoo ad.

By the end of the day, a number of commentators had riffed on this phrase. Riff is a metaphor from jazz to describe a form of improvisation in which one musician borrows and builds on the musical phrase of another. The original Imus phrase morphed into "Shrek vs. Breck," that is, the ogre vs. the hair model.

What followed was a conversation with my clever colleague Scott Libin, who was writing about the language of political analysis. The two of us begin riffing on the popular distinctions between the two candidates. "Cheney is often described as 'avuncular,'" said Scott. The word means "like an uncle." "Last night he looked more carbuncular, than avuncular," I responded, like an angry boil ready to pop.

Like two musicians, Scott and I began to offer variations on our improvisations. Before long, Cheney vs. Edwards became:

Dr. No vs. Mister Glow
Cold Stare vs. Good Hair
Pissed-off vs. Well-coiffed

I first suggested Gravitas vs. Levitas, gravity vs. levity, but Edwards is more toothsome than humorous, so I ventured: Gravitas vs. Dental Floss.

Writers collect apt phrases and colorful metaphors, sometimes for use in their conversation, and sometimes for adaptation into their prose. The danger, of course, is plagiarism, kidnapping the creative work of other writers. No one wants to be known as the Milton Berle of wordsmiths, the stealer of others' best material.

The harmonic way is through the riff. Almost all inventions come out of the associative imagination, that is, the ability to take what is already known and apply it metaphorically to the new. Edison was said to have solved a problem in the flow of electricity by thinking of the flow of water in a Roman aqueduct.

Think of how many words have been adapted from old technologies to describe tools of new media: We file, we browse, we surf, we link, we scroll, just to name a few.

The notion that all new knowledge derives from old wisdom should liberate the writer from fears of piracy or conformity. The apt phrase then becomes not a temptation, the apple in the Garden of Eden, but a tool to compose your way to the next level of invention.

Let me offer an example from my own work. When I moved from New York to Alabama in 1974, I was struck by the generalized American speech patterns of local broadcast journalists. They did not sound like Southerners. In fact, they had been trained to level their regional accents in the interests of comprehensibility. This struck me as more than odd. It seemed like a prejudice against Southern speech, an illness, a form of self-loathing.

As I wrote an essay on this topic, I reached a point when I needed to name it. I remember sitting on a metal chair at a desk I had constructed out of an old wooden door. What name? What name? It was almost like praying. I thought of the word "disease." And I remembered the nickname of a college teacher. We called him "The Disease" because his real name was Dr. Jurgalitis. A litany went through my brain. Jurgalitis. Appendicitis. Bronchitis. I almost fell off my chair: Cronkitis!

The essay, now titled "Infectious Cronkitis," was published on the op-ed page of The New York Times.  I received letters from Walter Cronkite, Dan Rather, and other well-known broadcast journalists who had lived in the South. I was interviewed by Douglas Kiker for "The Today Show." A couple of years later I met the editor who had accepted the original essay for The Times. He told me he liked the essay, but what sold him was the word "Cronkitis."

"A pun in two languages, no less," he said.

"Two languages?" I wondered.

"Yeah, the word 'krankheit' in German means 'disease.' Back in vaudeville, the comic doctors were called 'Dr. Krankheit.'"

Riffing on language will create wonderful effects you never intended. Which leads me to this writing advice: "Always take credit for good stuff you didn't intend, because you'll be getting plenty of criticism in your career for bad stuff you didn't mean either."

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