Haiku – do you?

An editor is someone who cares about language and about expression, particularly about subtlety and economy of expression, which can seem to be mutually exclusive categories. I was once describing for someone, in long flowing sentences, how much I loved the power of language to inform and to persuade, to build connections and relationships between people, even, in the case of written language, across space and time. He listened patiently, and then said, ‘I find words a rather coarse medium myself,’ thereby demonstrating modesty and mastery of language in one fell swoop.

Poetry is a sharp tool for carving out an exact idea with subtlety and economy, and one form I’ve been reading about recently is haiku. I’ve dabbled in this form while standing in queues (which gave rise to the unimaginative:

An excuse to stop
And practise meditation
While standing in line)

and have had the pleasure recently of listening to Ross Clark talk about being a poet and editing poets’ work. Ross presented to the Queensland Society of Editors’ meeting in February and his description of haiku, which among other things made me realise that my example above is not a good haiku at all, prompted me to read some more about it. I discovered that what I learned in high school about haiku needing to be three lines with the pattern 5, 7 then 5 syllables long was incorrect, and that they usually include a season word and are comparing two visual images for effect. Here’s one from Frogpond, the Journal of the Haiku Society of America:

pinwheeling leaves
thirty-five years end
with the word amicable

Dave Baldwin, Lake Stevens, Washington

So, imagine how pleased I am to see the collision of all that I love about language with my new interest in haiku. National Grammar Day is this Sunday, and it comes complete with a Tweeted Haiku Contest. Last year’s winner was about spelling:

Spell-checkers won’t catch
you’re mistaken homophones
scattered hear and their

@GordinaryWords

Everyone ready?

For the love of verbs

It may seem an odd thing to name a favourite part of speech. They’re all necessary, aren’t they? It would be like saying, ‘My favourite position in football is striker,’ or ‘My favourite ingredient in chocolate cake is cocoa.’ Although editing is as much about the game as the individual players, as much about the cake as the ingredients, I find that in fiction writing I am engaged by verbs and in corporate writing I often reinstate verbs to give them back their power.

In fiction

One thing I love about verbs is how quickly they can capture an image and convey it to a reader.

Take this example:

Ron had to leave. All the aunts and uncles begged him to stay, but he slowly extricated himself from the lounge chair, made his way into the kitchen where he left his cup and saucer on a bench, then out to the passageway. Some of the aunts followed him, and the uncles, having risen more slowly, took the shortcut from the lounge room out to the front door. Ron put his hand on the doorknob and turned as his relatives bottlenecked behind him, all reaching for a kiss or a handshake or shoulder clap. He opened the door a wedge, squeezed through and burst out into the sunlight.

In this piece the word ‘bottlenecked’ evokes the sensations of crowding together into a narrowing space, and of still more people coming from behind, adding to the pressure that results in Ron ‘bursting’ out of the house.

Another example comes from Julian Barnes’ The Sense of an Ending, which won the Man Booker Prize in 2011. The main character, Tony, is describing his teenage years and how his parents and those of his friends repeatedly warned them about the dangers of drugs and peer group pressure and of getting girls pregnant, when they can barely hope to have girls look at them and are getting up to none of the shenanigans their parents are worried about. He says:

How far their anxieties outran our experiences.

The verb ‘outran’ here evokes two streams of action: the one that is actually happening in the lives of the boys, and the one that is happening in the minds of their parents. Had Barnes said, ‘How much worse were their anxieties than our experiences’ (using the verb ‘to be’) the image would have been shapeless and powerless.

In corporate writing

Understanding how verbs work can improve corporate writing too. Although a verb is just one of the links in the chain that is a sentence, this part of speech does have some special qualities. To start with, you can have a one-word sentence consisting only of a verb. ‘Run!’

But most sentences consist of at least a subject and a verb. A subject is a noun or noun phrase: it’s what we’re talking about; and the verb (marked here in italics) is saying something about the actions or state of that noun.

‘Imogen runs.’

Here ‘Imogen’ is the subject of the sentence.

A subject can be longer than this and include all kinds of other information about Imogen.

‘The girl named Imogen runs.’

‘The girl with the dark hair named Imogen runs.’

‘The girl with the dark hair named Imogen, whose brother rides a bicycle beside her, runs.’

The problem of long subjects

You can see that subjects can be very long, and a reader can soon feel lost until they get to the bit that tells us what is going on here: the verb. For this reason I like to think of the verb as the pivot in a sentence. All the time we’re reading the subject we’re having to store information in our minds to make sure we can relate it to the verbal pivot that we know is coming up.

This kind of structure is very common in corporate writing:

‘The government committee for the awarding of corporate citizen medals and other social engagement activities was disbanded.’

We don’t get to the verb here until close to the very end of a long sentence. It would be an easier sentence to understand if we moved the verb closer to the front:

‘The government disbanded the committee that was for the awarding of corporate citizen medals and other social engagement activities.’

(The other problem with this sentence is the passive structure, a topic that deserves its own post.)

The problem of nominalisations

In corporate writing, verbs are often nominalised, or turned into nouns. A weak verb is inserted to replace the strong verb, and the whole sentence is weakened. You can often remove a lot of superfluous words when you trade a weak verb for a strong one.

‘The job of the representative is promotion of our corporate brand.’

Here the verb in the sentence is the weak verb ‘is’. The noun ‘promotion’ is a nominalisation of the strong verb ‘promote’, and this structure requires adding in ‘the job of’, making the whole subject ‘the job of the representative’.

‘The representative promotes our corporate brand.’

Now there is a short subject, ‘the representative’, and a strong verb instead of a weak one. The whole sentence is more succinct.

This isn’t a recommendation to change all sentences in corporate writing to this kind of structure; to do so just introduces a new type of monotonous structure. The variety of structures possible in language is what gives it richness and subtlety. But the problems of long subjects and nominalisations are common in corporate writing and a swing back to shorter structures and strong verbs can only strengthen the communicative power of corporate writing.

Just the right word …

Finding the right word is like finding a bargain – you are fishing through an assortment of possibilities that have some of the right qualities, but not all of them. Suddenly, one option seems to stand out: it is the right size. It is the right colour. And best of all, it is better than the right price!

When it’s the right word, you get a lot for your money. The reader comes away with a sense of coherence of your argument, or perhaps pleasure at an image you’ve conveyed. They may not remember how you did this, but they will remember that you did it.

One example of this in Neil Gaiman’s Stardust. In Chapter One, Gaiman is describing the town of Wall:

There is one road from Wall, a winding track rising sharply up from the forest, where it is lined with rocks and small stones. Followed far enough south, out of the forest, the track becomes a real road, paved with asphalt; followed further the road gets larger, is packed at all hours with cars and lorries rushing from city to city. Eventually the road takes you to London, but London is a whole night’s drive from Wall.

This description of a small town captures very well its distance from an urban centre and from industry, the gradual shift from slow, winding, forested land to the fast, straight lines of highways and busyness. But in that last phrase there is an added element of magic that wasn’t there at the beginning. Who describes a journey as taking the time of ‘a night’? With that one word, the darkness of the forest stays with me longer, the perils of night-time travel are foregrounded and Wall seems otherworldly compared with my imagined early morning (give thanks, for the sun has risen!) arrival in the safety of London.

Words form semantic sets, and with each word you choose, you are not choosing the rest that might have gone in that slot. Each word brings with it a range of connotations that add to the development of your story. So imagine that sentence with these alternatives:

  • London is a whole hour’s drive from Wall (no good, not far enough)
  • London is a whole day’s drive from Wall (ok, so it takes a while, but it’s just toil, and there’s sunshine. What magic happens in broad daylight?)
  • London is a whole week’s drive from Wall (trudge, trudge; no magic)

The choice of ‘night’ sets up the whole story. If you haven’t read this book, I recommend it. You’ll feel the magic too.