Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Barely Flooded

Writing Wednesday

Not too long ago I found a post by Eric Cummings in which he shared the one basic, iron-clad, always-applicable rule of writing: say what you mean and mean what you say.

Eric said that in one of his first writing classes he thought he had a fairly good story, so he was surprised when the teacher read the first line and then stopped. His first line was, "Morning light barely flooded the room." The teacher asked, "What do you mean, 'barely flooded?'"

Barely flooded-- the words fight each other: to flood means, "an abundant flow or outpouring," so how do you barely have an abundant flow or outpouring? The sense of the two words are so different that the thing described can only be one or the other. It's the literary equivalent of the garlic ice cream I once sampled--my taste buds couldn't decide whether it was savory garlic or sweet ice cream.

Like details that don't add up (as I mentioned last week), the problem with thoughtless constructions, like "barely flooded," is that they interrupt the reader's flow and force them to worry that the author doesn't have either the language or the story under control.

The one fundamental rule of writing is that we must use our words deliberately and be willing to take responsibility for each and every one of them.

Image: Simon Howden /

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