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The Elements of Expression

As a bookworm, English major, and former editor, I am a sucker for books about language. Arthur Plotnik, the author of The Elements of Expression: Putting Thoughts into Words, knows his stuff.

He calls on writers to eliminate dead and faded metaphors; throw away “clichés, crutch words (‘really,’ ‘just’), and redundancies (‘completely empty’)”; and reach for language that is fresh, succinct, and inventive.

I found the book slow to start. By Chapter 5 (Steps Toward Expressiveness), Mr. Plotnik picks up the pace and offers concrete steps to take, which he distills to “Read–Listen–Savor–Keep a journal. Pause–Scan–Choose–Invent–Polish.”

Mr. Plotnik himself is a talented, nimble writer. Here are some of his gems:

We stuff verbal straw into the spaces between our spoken statements.

Given the same meaning, the smaller package of words–the grenade–usually delivers more force than a fusillade of blanks.

Empowerment comes from precision, precision, precision; from language that harpoons the exact meaning, the nuance, for the intended audience.

Sincerity requires language that reaches outside the ordinary to signal importance, yet avoids the pitfalls of contrivance, fraudulence, and self-indulgence. . . . It takes . . . language that stands on its toes but doesn’t leave the ground.

And his chapter Make my Day: The Power of Tough Talk made me laugh:

When Americans get going–especially to impress tough-talking peers–they can caulk an entire narrative with the word [f*ck], working it into every grammatical crevice and jamming it between syllables as an infix: “unf*ckingbelieveable!”

This book served as an entertaining, get-back-in-focus language manual for me. Since reading it, I am paying more attention to oral and written language (mine and others), and I am working to avoid the cliché ruts, tired vocabulary, and monotonous structures my brain reverts to when lazy. Mr. Plotnik’s suggestion of keeping a writer’s journal to log expressive words and well-turned phrases is one I’d like to try.

To me, the biggest challenge is finding that authentic voice and feeling comfortable using it. We are taught all sorts of language rules and then we are exhorted to have the courage to express ourselves uniquely. No wonder I feel conflicted about writing!

Soon after finishing this book, I heard Diane Rehm’s conversation with Barbara Kingsolver about Ms. Kingsolver’s new book, Flight Behavior. If you want to hear expressive language, listen to Ms.Kingsolver read pp. 13-14 of her book during this interview. Her writing is exquisite.

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