Enjoy Yourself and Break Some Rules: Part Two
Five-Minute Writing Tip # 39:
Read and Share
A few years ago, a friend told me about a TV series he believed represented some of the best script-writing to come around in a long time. The name of the series was Breaking Bad. I wasn’t familiar with that phrase, but it was like a slap in the face when I watched the first episode. I’m sure you’ve heard of this series, but if not, it’s about a teacher who was pushed to emotional and financial extremes and decided to break a few rules--big rules.
As strong as this TV series was, I feel equally strong about breaking the following two grammar rules—when done correctly.
But you should not break them when writing academic, legal, or scientific papers, or any other types of formal writing. So when writing fiction, nonfiction, or casual writing such as blogs, consider not doing the following:
Always Write a Complete Sentence
Tell that to H. L. Mencken. Fragmented sentences, if well-crafted, make a strong impact and present a certain writing style or voice. Some examples:
“He learned to accept her as his wife. Little by little.” The fragment after the first sentence has more impact than: “Little by little, he learned to accept her as his wife.”
Or how about this dialogue:
“The cause of death?”
“Arsenic poisoning. Possibly self-administered.”
This short, snappy-speak works better than spoonfeeding the reader:
“What was the cause of death?’
“The guy took arsenic and it poisoned him.”
Or this example from a thriller:
“Footsteps. Coming from the basement.”
And consider this by Mencken:
“Farmers plowing sterile fields behind sad meditative horses, both suffering from the bites of insects.” This sentence uses a comma and seems to be missing the verb “are” or “were” to make it complete, but without such verb, the image is clearer and more visceral.
Avoid Using Slang
Tell that to Kookie on the 1960s TV series 77 Sunset Strip. Oxford American Dictionary defines slang as “very informal words and phrases that are more common in speech than in writing and are used by a particular group of people.”
I just stumbled upon a great writing/editing website, “Writing Sideways,” and I like its definition: “slang (noun) — A kind of language occurring chiefly in casual and playful speech, made up typically of short-lived coinages and figures of speech that are deliberately used in place of standard terms for added raciness, humor, irreverence, or other effect.”
The first time I recall hearing slang was when I watched the first episode of 77 Sunset Strip and Kookie, the valet and wannabe private detective (played Ed Burns), introduced me to “hipster,” and “cool.” Fifty years later, “cool” is frequently used and “hipster” appears occasionally. His character developed a popular slang all his own:
“Stable the horses” meant “park the cars.”
“Chicks in skins” meant “women in furs.”
“Lighting up the tilt” sign “meant lying.”
So some of Kookie’s hip word-use is also an extreme example of roguish language that suited the times, but has become obsolete. The use of slang when writing a blog or column is the best way to develop your writer’s voice, since this type of writing is informal and familiar. But you don’t want to have to define each word or phrase as I did with Kookie’s examples above. In other words, sprinkle in familiar slang; don’t overdo it.
Here are some examples of words and phrases I used in recent blogs:
“Who wouldn’t say yea to that?”
“Her feedback is always on the mark.”
In comparing myself to Goldilocks in my blog about homophones (Writing Tip # 24), I described myself as “a nervy blonde chick.”
Slang helps a blogger bond with readers. But as noted, if you’re a microbiologist writing a lab report about Streptococcus pneumoniae (pneumonia), a round or oval-shaped bacterium that colonizes in pairs and infects the lungs, you do not describe the bacteria as a scum-bag germ that pollutes your air-bags.
Kathleen Kaska, Marketing Director