Dan White of “Cactus Eaters” suggests avoiding “magnificent.” White led a nature-writing hike over the weekend and advised:
Also: during the talk, I asked the writers to avoid using the word “magnificent” in their nature descriptions. “Instead, try to choose evocative and descriptive words that will make the reader see that it is magnificent.” And then, after offering up that rule, I proceeded to use the word “magnificent” again and again and again while describing all the things we were seeing. (“Wow. Isn’t that redwood tree magnificent!!! Isn’t that ocean view magnificent??”) It was mortifying.
White’s advice is a turn on “show, don’t tell,” the first adage you learn in Journalism School. (The second adage is that your fate is one of poverty, angst, desperation and outright depression. Curiously, people still join up. News is like heroin, and it introduces you to a similar class of people.)
“Magnificent” and its flowery ilk (stupendous, etc) suffer from lack of clear consensus between writer and reader. It’s one thing to grab your hiking buddy and say “check out that banana slug. Magnificent.” Your buddy knows exactly what you mean because he can see it with his own eyes. With the written word, you have to create a mental image of magnificence first. Once you’ve created that image, your work’s done: no need to even say “magnificent.”
Hiking is easy compared to decoding the 99 gazillion messages buzzing through your central nervous system over the course of several miles and constructing a meaningful narrative when you get home. How I get out of that trouble:
- Make mental notes about storytelling moments. A reporter covering a city council meeting knows he has his story the minute the mayor announces he’s dissolving the police force to build trust in the community (this is on the docket in Berkeley, I hear). The other day I was walking through spider webs at high noon and realized this stretch of trail hadn’t been hiked all day — which struck me as newsworthy because it was my favorite trail at the park in question. Hikers always want to know about these little-known wonders, so that seemed like a nice point to start my story.
- Use descriptive analogies. OK, so I got a little carried away yesterday comparing hiking the hot sun to a “breakfast of barbed wire” (it sounded good at the time), but little analogies to human existence are happening all the time along the trail.
- Avoid cliches. There’s simply no point in burning the calories required to type in any phrase or saying that’s been used by a hundred hikers before you. Your life isn’t like anybody else’s, why should you use their language? (See the Banned for Life list for ideas on what to avoid).
- Use humor if you dare. 99 percent of all written attempts to be funny fail. Why do writers for the Daily Show and David Letterman rake in the big bucks? Because their skill is that rare (and their neuroses are that profound). Usually, humor comes down to desiring one thing and getting something else — deranged genius Wile E. Coyote hungers for simplemind bleeping Roadrunner, who simply runs very fast and leaves Wile E. to suffer the consequences of his way-too-complicated schemes. I sometimes copy the techniques of guys like Dave Barry, but he’s rich and famous and I’m not because Barry, despite inserting booger gags into every seventh paragraph like it’s a prescription from his doctor, is consistently funny (or was long enough to get rich and famous).
- The best stories are built on conflict. Driving to work without incident is altogether different than causing a four-car smash-up that paralyzes your best friend who’s been sleeping with your sister and had similar plans for your wife. Hiking is a decidedly low-conflict hobby, but there are times when your desire to see if you can cross that stream on the fallen log collides with your pathetically poor balance. For writers, it’s OK to tap into people’s inborn desire to gawk at car crashes (heck, it’s practically a requirement.)
- Be authoritative. Make sure everything you say is true, and take a few minutes to look up the stuff you’re not sure about.
- Be succinct.
Your tips welcome.