Not Another Penguin

Does your choice of words offer any color?IMG_8031 adj

by Andy Scheer

Writing in the Hartline Literary Agency’s blog, I reminded authors to include their name in proposals they attach as files to their emails:

A file 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.

Several readers responded that the “one more penguin” reference finally made them understand the situation. That’s the power of a word picture.

When I evaluate an author’s work, I check to see if they have the knack to craft a fresh bit of verbal shorthand.

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. A parade of prose that proclaims your profundity deflects your purpose.

Don’t slather on picturesque phrases like a sixth-grader
using makeup for the first time.

In the hands of a master, word pictures attract and engage. This past week as I 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 than most writers could accomplish in a paragraph.

In the next paragraph, notice how Steinbeck constructs a succession of vivid word pictures:

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. … 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.

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? Do that, and your writing won’t look like one more penguin.

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About Andy Scheer

With more than 30 years in publishing, Andy Scheer has provided freelance editorial services since 2010. He has edited fiction and nonfiction for publishers including Moody, WinePress, and BelieversPress, as well as for clients including Dirk Cussler, McNair Wilson, DiAnn Mills, Heather Day Gilbert, and Sammy Tippit.

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