Guilford College Writing Manual

This is the official Guilford College Writing Manual. A collaboration between the English Department and the Hege Library.

Revising to Brighten

REVISING TO BRIGHTEN

            The story goes that the inhabitants of Bali, an island off the eastern tip of Java that is known for its lush natural beauty (and is thus referred to as “the Jewel of the East”), have no word for “artist.”

            The reason is not that there are no artists on the island. Rather, it’s that everyone is an artist. Artistic activity pervades the culture: dancing, music-making, architecture, wood-carving, weaving. Thus no special word is needed.

            With brightening, we are talking about conscious artistry in writing. Call it the magic zone. Here we move beyond issues of mere craft and consider ways to bring your prose to life and enhance its appeal. You, too, can be an honorary citizen of Bali.

             Consider the following five operations:

Add freshness with concrete associations.

            If you have human appeal, you have readers . . . that’s axiomatic. Don’t hesitate to add personal material where appropriate.

            One way to do this is to make connections that enliven your text. Let's say you were living in Los Angeles and decided to write a letter to an acquaintance who was the head of a creative talent agency. You're writing on behalf of friends who have written drafts of screenplays but are having a hard time getting anyone to look at them (in Los Angeles, nearly everyone has written a screenplay and the studios have put systems in place to protect themselves from this avalanche of material).

            The message of the draft could be plain and simple. Knowing your reader’s interests and literary bent, however, you decide to brighten the material in revision. Thus you sit back and let your mind play over what you've already written. Things that might occur to you"

  • A story you've read recently about how William Faulkner, who was having trouble getting his first novel published, approached Sherwood Anderson’s wife and asked her to intercede for him. She did and Anderson agreed to help—on the condition that Anderson didn’t have to read the hefty draft.
  • A pungent comment from Herman Melville about the vicissitudes of being a writer.
  • A presentation that you'd seen director/writer Lawrence Kasdan make a week earlier at the Writer’s Guild theater in Beverly Hills. Kasdan (The Big Chill, The Empire Strikes Back, Return of the Jedi, Wyatt Earp) had talked about writing 12original screenplays before successfully selling one.

        You could work all three references into the revised draft and thereby enrich your text and enhance its effectiveness as a message.

Add metaphor and simile

           Metaphors and similes are two of the most reliable page-brighteners in a writer’s repertoire.

           Similes state a comparison with “like” or “as.” Thus, “the sun was as bright as a copper kettle.” Metaphors, on the other hand, make the comparison implicit, actually likening one thing to another as if it were the thing: “the copper-kettle sun.”

            Interestingly, metaphors may have been an early form of taboo, a way of avoiding direct reference to, say, evil spirits.

            Those of you who have read Beowulf may know that kennings were early progenitors of metaphor. Examples of kennings: “head jewels” (eyes), “swan road” (sea), “world candle” (sun), “battle adders” (arrows).

            Here are some examples of metaphor and simile at work:

Television has become a vast electronic desert dotted only by a tiny occasional oasis.

If academic writing is a problem-solving activity, then the dissertation is the ultimate conundrum. Among writing tasks it is a leviathan whose features are less familiar, and approaches to which are less charted, than are those of any assignment the student will encounter.

And so, anticipating no literary treat, I plunged into the forest of words of my first manuscript. My weapons were a sturdy eraser and several batteries of sharpened pencils. My armor was a thesaurus. And if I should become lost, a nearby public library was a landmark, and the Encyclopedia of Symbols on its reference shelves was an ever-ready guide.

Once you’ve chosen your general subject, take pains to delimit it so that its size is manageable. A small garden, well manicured and easily tended, is far more attractive than a large garden that shows signs of having gotten out of hand.

The inflated style is itself a kind of euphemism. A mass of Latin words falls upon the facts like soft snow, blurring the outlines and covering up all the details.

            Something you can do to cultivate simile & metaphor: practice sticking “like” at the end of occasional clauses or sentences and challenging yourself to come up with creative comparisons.

            Or try filling in some of the blanks below, just for practice:

            The lecture was as __________________________.

            Her eyes looked like __________________________.

            Viewed from outer space, the earth is _________________________.

            Like _____________________, the class sat speechless.

            The national budget deficit is _____________________________.

            Finding civilizations underground must be like ______________________.

            Life is __________________________.

Two warnings, however.

  • Don’t overdo it. Use metaphor and simile like you would use garlic salt on a salad—that is, sparingly. What they tend to do is to shift the reader’s attention away from the specific subject at hand, and in expository writing such shifting may be inappropriate. In literary writing, on the other hand, we sometimes find and appreciate great density of metaphorical language. Check out the following paragraph from Melville’s Moby-Dick:

Next morning the not-yet-subsided sea rolled in long slow billows of mighty bulk, and striving in the Pequod’s gurgling track, pushed her on like giants’ palms outspread. The strong, unstaggering breeze abounded so, that sky and air seemed vast outbellying sails; the whole world boomed before the wind.  Muffled in the full morning light, the invisible sun ws only knows by the spread intensity of this place; where his bayonet rays moved on in stacks. Emblazonings, as of crowned Babylonian kings and queens, reigned over everything. The sea was as a crucible of molten gold, that bubblingly leaps with light and heat.           

  • George Orwell: “Never use a metaphor, simile, or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print.”

Add human appeal with quotations and personal anecdotes

            If you know Rumpelstilskin’s name you have power over him. If you attach a lock of a person’s hair to a voodoo doll, you theoretically gain power over him or her via the doll.

            In each case we see the operation of “sympathetic magic.” Having a piece of a person is like having the entire person.

            Quotations operate this way. By bringing a person’s actual words into your text, you’ve brought that person in, and the text thereby acquires life and three-dimensionality.

            As for personal anecdotes: think of their role in your text as being like that of raisins in a pudding.

Add surprise via with and turns of phrase

            Slip in occasional witticisms as tone-lighteners.  Rare is the reader who doesn’t relish the chance to smile or chuckle. Be like comedian David Steinberg, who declares, “I always try to do something fresh and unexpected. If you can tell where the routine is going, it’s no good.”

Add visual appeal

            One reason prose may read dull is that is simply looks dull.

            Think of the page as a blank canvas and yourself as an artist working in black and white.

            Avoid “cookie-cutter” prose, where everything is uniform and routine: all paragraphs roughly the same size, sentences having the same structure, similar words used over and over again, punctuation marks repeated regularly like clockwork.

            Don’t just fill the page, but be conscious of how it looks. Things you can do:

  • If you want to list several points in no particular order, experiment with bullet dots. They leave more white space, give the reader a different typographical look, and don’t clutter his or her brain with superfluous numbers.
     
  • Use creative punctuation. Dashes, for example, add dash. Capitalizing IMPORTANT words on occasion can add spice. And then there are “look-at-me-now hyphens,” as in Nora Ephron’s sentence: “There are incredible confidences traded, emotional outbursts shared, but it’s all done in the context of the ‘rap,’ the shut-up-it’s-my-turn-now-it’ll-be-yours-in-a-minute school of discussion.”