Richard Powell (1908-1999) is one of my favorite authors. He grew up in Philadelphia, started as a newspaper reporter, then went into advertising, before becoming a popular novelist in the 1950s and 60s. He also taught creative writing at Syracuse University.
Powell’s most famous novel was The Philadelphian. In 1959 it was turned into a movie, “The Young Philadelphians,” starring Paul Newman. My favorite was his last book, Whom the Gods Would Destroy (1970) about the Trojan War epic. If you like ancient history, it’s a classic, not only for the story, but for Powell’s brilliant writing style.
Over the years I’ve hunted down and read all 20 of Powell’s novels. When I was teaching high school English I was delighted to learn that he also wrote several magazine articles for The Writer magazine. Reprinted below is my favorite among his articles. It provides some nice advice for novices and pros alike…
The Magic of Words
The Writer (October 1967)
Of course it will never come true, but I keep having this dream in which the President of the United States sends a message to Congress demanding civil rights for words. In it, he points out how badly words are abused, and calls attention to the fact that our language is a national resource that is being mistreated even more than our rivers and air. It is only a dream, however, and I do not look for the War on Poverty to be extended to the spoken and written word.
The trouble is that the poverty pockets in this case are too hard to get at, because they are not in city slums or Appalachia, but inside people’s heads. People are willing to use their brains on many difficult problems—avoiding income taxes, beating the horses, sneaking an extra coffee break—but apparently most of them couldn’t care less about the problem of how to use words clearly and dramatically. Among these people are scientists, educators, lawyers, government officials, doctors, businessmen and housewives.
Is it possible that there are also writers among them? Yes, friends, there are writers among them.
Let us skip the problem of writers who do not know how to use words clearly. Nobody can help them, and perhaps the published writers among them do not even want to be helped, because a murky style of writing may sometimes win critical acclaim. Let us, instead, take up the problem of writers who use words clearly, but with no more impact than that of a wet dishrag dropped on the floor. There are many such writers. They may do a fine job of plotting and characterization, but they handle words like a cook ladling out alphabet soup: the first collection of letters that comes out of the pot goes into the dish. Here is an example of alphabet-soup writing:
- I got up this morning as happy as a lark and, as usual, ate breakfast like a horse. I sat at my desk and worked like a mule all day and ended dog-tired.
I have given you a lot of information about my day, have I not? I have also given it clearly. But how many people would be interested in hearing about my zoological day? I have used words that bored you stiff and were as dull as dishwater, including the expressions I used in this sentence. I have used old, worn-out groupings of words. I have used words in a lazy, thoughtless way, picking up expressions once new and shiny, but now so overworked that they have no power to hook reader attention. The sad thing about this is that there is a magic in words when they are used with a touch of imagination. What I should have done, if I wanted anybody to pay attention to a very ordinary collection of facts, was to call on the magic of words. Perhaps I might have written:
- When I got up this morning I felt like the bubbles in champagne, and breakfast tasted as if I were just coming off a diet. I spent the day beating a typewriter ribbon to rags, and ended up as tired as the clichés I was trying not to use.
Now I have dressed my dull facts in bright clothes, and so people might pay attention, I have thrown out my collection of zoological clichés and developed some new expressions. A cliché is an expression that, when it was new, sketched a vivid picture for people. The first man who used the expression ‘dog-tired’ no doubt impressed his audience; they would have pictured how a dog looks when he is panting and his tongue hangs out and he flops down. But, with use, the term dog-tired lost its force. Nobody who reads or hears it for the tenth or hundredth or thousandth time gets a vivid picture from it. It has become a cliché. It is now merely a crutch for lame brains; it is a mental sleeping pill. It is a way to avoid thinking. There is no word magic in a cliché.
I don’t want to pretend that, when I developed some new expressions to replace the zoological clichés, I simply made a flourish and pulled them out of a hat. In the first place, I wouldn’t pull them out of a hat, because that’s another cliché, perhaps invented soon after the first magician pulled the first rabbit out of the first hat. New expressions do not come easily to me; my brain is lazy, too, and approaches the idea of work like a teenager asked to do the dishes. But I have learned that if I play the harsh parent with my brain, it will go to work, even though grudgingly. It took me an hour to work out those new expressions, and if I had spent two hours on them they would undoubtedly be better. I don’t advise writers to spend an hour on every sentence they write, because they might never finish a story or article. But, when you need to grab attention, you must spend time and thought on the job.
It is not difficult for a person of normal intelligence to write in a colorful and dramatic way. One summer, several years ago, I taught a writing course at Syracuse University. Included in the homework I assigned were some problems in colorful writing. I explained to my students that one method of colorful writing is to describe Item A in terms of Item B: for example, describe a mountain as if it were a living creature. (It could be an old lion crouched in the distance, or a vulture hovering over the valley.) None of my students were professional writers, and none had previously known any tricks of colorful writing. But, when given a method of doing it, they produced such examples as these:
- (Describe a young girl, at her first dance, in terms of another type of living thing.) “Jane sat in the small gilt chair beside the dance floor, thin, angular, unmoving, eyes carefully blank, legs straight out before her like knobby stems. She seemed as much a fixture as the potted palms.”
- (Describe a society matron in terms of another type of living things.) Mrs. Cheyney was, he thought, like a faded rose, even to her hands with their thorns of fingernails.
- (And the same.) “Mrs. Culpepper looked for her name in the society column, easer as a St. Bernard sniffing at a hydrant.”
This is good writing. It is professional. Anybody who can do this on demand could have a successful career in some form of writing. The trick of describing one thing in terms of another is much used by good writers. Carl Sandburg wrote a complete poem by using this trick merely one time. The poem contains six lines and twenty-one words, and has been reprinted in many anthologies of American poetry. It is titled “The Fog,” and Sandburg describes the fog as if it were a cat.
Some years ago, in writing a story, I wanted to describe gulls flying, and I wrote of them in terms of ice skaters: “Gulls figure-skating against the sky.” This happens to stick in my memory because Reader’s Digest used my words on its “Picturesque Speech” page and paid me ten dollars, the first of many delightful checks from the magazine and Reader’s Digest Condensed Book Club. While writing this article I wanted to see if I had exhausted the ways of describing gulls in terms of something else, and I came up with these descriptions:
- The gulls went tobogganing down the snowy clouds.
- The gulls did a waltz in the ballroom of the sky.
- High up, a gull wheeled and curved, writing a message against the blue paper of the air.
This experiment seems to hint that there may be as many ways of describing gulls in flight as there are gulls.
Mood and atmosphere
When does a writer use such colorful expressions? Always? No. That might be like a steady diet of fruitcake. Colorful writing is used to create a needed effect – perhaps of mood or atmosphere or character – and when the effect has been achieved, it is a waste of time to do it over and over. Nor should colorful writing be used merely to show off. It must contribute to achieving the writer’s purpose in his piece of fiction or article or poem or speech or whatever. I would not use colorful words to describe the ringing of a telephone, unless I needed to create a certain mood; if the mood had already been crated, I would simply say that the telephone rang, and then get on to more vital things. But if the call was going to be important and I had to get the reader in the right mood for it, I might write:
- I reached for the ringing telephone as if getting my first lesson in snake charming.
- The telephone bell echoed in my head like a dentist’s drill.
- The telephone bell made a little apologetic murmur.
- The telephone jingled pleasantly, like an old hurdy-gurdy.
Each of these sentences contributes to the establishment of a different mood or atmosphere. They could not be used interchangeably.
The same method, of course, can be used in describing people. In my latest novel, Don Quixote, U.S.A., I wanted to describe my hero’s physical appearance, and at the same time create a mood and tell something of his character. This called for colorful writing and for the expenditure of several hours of mental sweat to produce two sentences. As I say, these things do not come easily to me; getting them out of my head is often like trying to shake the last dime out of a piggy bank. After four hours, I had these two sentences:
- Mine is not the grim, strong face of the typical Goodpasture. Such a face is spare and angular, as if welded from steel plowshares, whereas my features look as if they had been hastily whittled out of balsa wood.
In those two sentences, I provided a good deal of information about my hero’s physical appearance, the family from which he came, and his character. I doubt that it would have been interesting to readers if I had merely written: “All of my family have strong, grim faces, but mine is rather weak and nondescript.”
Another way to write colorful language is to exaggerate to achieve an effect. It is not very striking merely to write that somebody is thin. If you want to create a dramatic effect, use exaggeration. Draw a word picture of how that person is. For example:
- She was so thin she could have taken a bath in a fountain pen.
- He was so thin he could have lurked behind a needle.
- He as so thin he could have crawled through a pencil sharpener… and with a pencil in his pocket, too.
Effective parts of speech
In trying to make magic with words, it is wise to beware of the adjective. Nouns are good words to use in sentences. They are like bones, providing the needed skeleton. Verbs are good words. They are the muscles, providing the action. But adjectives are in most cases merely the clothing or ornaments of a sentence, and it is easy to overdress a sentence. Let me quote the beginning of a famous speech, and count the adjectives in it:
Friends, Romans, countrymen, lend me your ears.
I come to bury Caesar, not to praise him.
The evil that men do lives after them,
The good is oft interred with their bones.
So let it be with Caesar.
How many adjectives in those opening lines of Mark Anthony’s speech? Shakespeare didn’t use any.
So in trying to put magic into your words, don’t think that piling up adjectives will do the job. One well-chosen adjective may be perfect, like a diamond ring on the hand of a pretty woman. Too many adjectives may be like too many diamond rings; not only does the display seem crude, but also it may hide the fact that the woman has lovely fingers.
Words should be a source of never-ending mystery and delight to any writer. All of us should be forever curious about how words were invented and evolved and what they used to mean and what they mean now. Another term for a cliché is a hackneyed expression. Think a moment about the word “hackneyed.” Do you know how it originated? Well, back in the days of horses and carriages, a horse that was kept for hire was called a hackney. Such animals were overworked, and were often tired and slow and thin. Somebody started applying the term to phrases that were also tired and slow and thin: hackneyed phrases. When first used, the term was colorful and called up a picture in the reader’s mind. But how good a picture does it evoke now?
Are you the sort of writer who can look up a word in the dictionary without ever being lured into looking up others? Can you run across such words as “boycott” without digging out the sad tale of Captain Charles Cunningham Boycott? Can you hear the term “halcyon days” without discovering the pleasant old Greek myth from which it come? If you are not fascinated by words, I feel sorry for you, because you must find the use of them a dull and tiring job. To make magic with words, a writer must know what they mean. And, if he hopes to use words in a new and colorful way, he must be able to recognize the old drag ways in which they have been used.
Words are like Cinderella: sad little drudges, wearing rags and dirtied by soot. It is in the power of writers to play Fairy Godmother, and make those drudges into shining creatures. Words can sing and dance, growl and roar, tiptoe and march. They will do all these things for any writer who is willing to wave the magic wand of his imagination over them.