IT seems like a long time since I had a Primary Four student seek my counsel on writing. This, I think, has to do with the fact that over the last few years, I’ve bristled at some of the nonsense the poor primary school kids are taught both in school and enrichment centers. They all come in with the same sad ideas about what makes a piece of writing good.
“Good words” seems to echo loudest, never ever “well-chosen words.” Then, there’s “good phrases.”
Ask them what “good words” means, you’d invariably hear something like this: “Any word that is not so commonly used.” Read: a big word, never mind if it’s ill-suited to the context.
Elated vs. Happy
No one seems to consider prudent word choice, or diction—which, in truth, is harder to teach, but vital and true to the spirit of creativity.
What prevails instead is the spirit of showing off, of going after the sleeker word over the plainer, simpler, and sometimes better one. Take “happy,” for instance. Poor “happy” has a way of getting dissed in favor of “elated” just because “elated” makes the “not so commonly used” cut, while “happy” doesn’t.
Stock Phrases and Clichés
As for “good phrases,” well, they’re mostly stock phrases, the sort you find bursting to the seams in self-help phrase books, and worksheets supplied by writing labs and enrichment experts who prefer to call them “word banks,” a term I find loathsome and pretentious.
Study from these factory-cranked resources, and you’ll have a million kids write scenes that depict how Joe Bananas “glared angrily” or “shouted loudly,” or how, in a fit of anger, he was “all crimson with rage.” Which is why I chose to begin class with the words, “cliché” (noun) and “clichéd” (adjective), with Ying, my Primary Four student, in her first class with me yesterday.
If I don’t already see red with all that “crimson,” wait till you hear what the kids learn about the verb “said,” as in “he said” or “she said.” Avoid using “said,” they’re told. Go for more colorful verbs, of which “exclaimed” ranks high on the list, followed by “shrieked,” “shouted,” “yelled,” “screamed,” and a host of other wonder verbs. As if this weren’t enough, they’re urged to pile on adverbs to add pizzazz to their fancier-than-said verb choices.
Examples: “whispered softly,” “muttered timidly,” “shouted defiantly,” “retorted violently,” “yelled angrily.”
Adverbs Aren’t Your Friends
There’s little consideration for the time-tested advice to avoid adverbs. “The adverb is not your friend,” said American novelist Stephen King, especially after “he said” and “she said.” Besides, one should let the dialogue carry the sentiment or manner, whether it’s “softly,” “timidly,” “defiantly,” “violently,” or “angrily.”
Instead of deploying adverbs, what we really should be doing is to hunt them down and zap them out as we would villain critters in a computer game, which was exactly what Ying and I did.
We identified two phrases from her phrase sheet, scratching out the adverbs:
- my stomach was growling
- savoring my meal
Why? A growling stomach is audible, and “savor” is naturally a “leisurely” affair.
Then, Ying picked out another pesky line:
- glared at my friend
We said goodbye to the adverbial phrase “in annoyance” in the same way we killed “angrily” if the phrase had been rendered like so:
- glared at my friend
The verb “glared,” after all, screams with indignation, why gild the lily? Why give legs to a snake, as the Chinese saying goes?
On “Said” Again
Next, Ying and I flipped through the first three pages of Charlotte’s Web by E.B. White, who, by the way, was a student of Professor William Strunk. We noted how his dialogues were mostly tagged with “said,” peppered only by non-said verbs like “replied,” “yelled,” “cried,” “continued,” “shrieked.”
Lesson: “said” is the preferred choice of writers. Ying’s present task is to mark out all the appearances of “said” in Roald Dahl’s James and the Giant Peach, the book she’s working on right now. She’s also going to observe if Dahl uses adverbs to qualify his said-type words. We can guess what her findings would reveal.
Finally, we had a chat about contractions in dialogue. From her trusty Word Bank, we discovered a sample dialogue that went thus: “You are so late!” We changed it to: “You’re so so late!”
Generally, we don’t talk like how we write. There’s a speaking register and a writing register. So if Joe Bananas is hungry, we’re likely going to hear him say, “I’m hungry” rather than “I am hungry.”
So, gentle readers, let’s write sensibly and let’s write dialogues that capture the real nuances of speech. Now, notice I didn’t write “let us.”