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Top 5 Exercises for Coming Up with Great Song Lyric Ideas—#2: Metaphor Collisions
This exercise is one of my all-time favorites. It is the fastest way to show yourself that you are capable of coming up with totally original, unique ideas and ways to express yourself that no one has ever uttered before.
More importantly, this exercise trains your brain to see the world like a songwriter—to make novel combinations between seemingly unexpected things; to refract the familiar through a prism of new light.
Let’s get to it.
What is a Metaphor Collision?
Metaphor Collisions is an exercise that takes two small lists of random nouns; we then make random collisions between a noun from List 1 and a noun from List 2, and then very quickly spend 2-3 minutes expanding on the collision, developing the new idea that emerges when we compare one thing to another (that has never been compared before!).
How it works.
Create 2 lists of random nouns, each with 5 nouns in it. [Remember, a noun is a person/place/object/thing. We know it’s a noun because we can put the words ‘the’, ‘an’, or ‘a’ before it: The ocean. An idea. A collision.]
List 1 can contain any noun at all, concrete or abstract—and works well when there is a smattering of both!
List 2 should exclusively contain concrete nouns—tangible things or objects that you could actually hold, touch, smell, see or hear (as distinct from abstract nouns, which are concepts or ideas. For example: a conversation, personality, freedom).
Why? Metaphors come alive with imagery, and concrete nouns are the stuff of imagery. When one side of the metaphor is guaranteed to contain imagery, your efforts will generate great rewards.
Here’s an example of 2 lists:
List 1: hospital, haircut, conversation, history, cancer
List 2: river, canyon, ferrari, church, violin
This is a brilliant random word generator. It has a concrete noun generator, as well as a general noun generator (as well as all sorts of other categories which are extremely fun to play with once you’ve got the hand of the basic form of Metaphor Collisions).
Make a ‘THIS is THAT’ collision, by picking one word from List 1 and one word from List 2.
For example: “His history was a canyon.”
Note that I’ve added in the pronoun ‘his’, and also picked a tense, ‘was’. This gives the metaphor a sense of character and story. You can pick your pronouns, and experiment with tense. The essence here is the metaphor collision between ‘history’ and ‘canyon.’
Here comes the important bit, where all of the action happens. You’re now going to spend 2 minutes expanding on the metaphor that you have just created. Write a sentence or two that explain and describe how one thing is like the other.
For example: His history was a canyon—As we got closer, I started to get dizzy at the edge of everything I didn’t know about him.
Tip: remember that a metaphor is when we say ‘x IS y’; a simile is when we say ‘x is LIKE y’. Metaphor is a much more potent and intense kind of language. For the moment, stick with metaphor.
Continue making random collisions and expanding them for 10 minutes. See how many you can do. Aim for at least 3.
More examples from these lists:
Her haircut was a church; her natural joy became burdened by the weight of its seriousness.
The conversation was a river; and I was drowning in the undertow of the private jokes I didn’t understand.
The hospital was a violin; a cacophony of high-pitched sounds, but with a highly composed orchestration of doctors, nurses, and machines, every component coming together in the end.
A few things to notice.
- Notice that I am using novel combinations. I am deliberately avoiding any combinations that I have heard before. It’s possible you might get the word ‘love’ in List 1, and the word ‘flame’ in List 2…for the moment, avoid those tropes.
- Notice how I am using words and phrases in the sentences that relate back to the original metaphor image. With ‘river’, I am very deliberately using the words ‘drowning’ and ‘undertow’. With ‘violin’, we have ‘cacophony’, ‘high-pitched’, and ‘composed orchestration’. Using words related to your metaphor is where a metaphor really comes to life.
- Notice that I am not mixing metaphors. When I am expanding the metaphor collision using language related to the metaphor image, I am deliberately avoiding dipping into other metaphors. Mixing metaphor tends to feel chaotic, and ultimately dilutes the power of a single, strong, well-developed metaphor.
- Notice in the sentences that I am always coming back to the ‘target idea’—what the sentence is really about. When I say ‘the conversation was a river’, this sentence is really about the conversation. That’s the target idea. The ‘river’ is my metaphor, which is to say, it’s the color that I am using to paint the sentence, but ultimately the most important idea is to describe the ‘conversation’. With the last example, I have deliberately referenced ‘doctors, nurses, and machines’ to make sure that the target idea is never lost inside the metaphor.
If I had instead written something like:
The hospital was a violin; a cacophony of high-pitched sounds, but with a highly composed orchestration of melodies and rhythms, every component coming together in the end…
…we would lose sight of what the target idea is. We get so tangled up in the metaphor that it starts to sound like we are simply describing a musical performance, not a hospital. Metaphor collisions (and metaphor is general) works best when we apply the metaphor language back to specific elements of the target idea.
How to Use Metaphor Collisions in Your Lyrics
- You will find that you come up with ideas and expressions that translate very quickly into lines of lyric. Just like with Sense Writing, you can collect the gems in a separate document, and use them later. You don’t need to take the whole collision, either. Often I like to jettison the actual ‘x is y’ statement, and just keep parts of the expansion; ‘drowning in the undertow of the private jokes’; ‘burdened by the weight of seriousness.’
- This is a brilliant brain training exercise, that attunes your perception to see and develop novel combinations in unexpected ways. Even when the individual collisions don’t yield specific lyric ideas, sometimes the most ridiculous ones are the ones that have strengthened this ability the most! ‘The burrito was an aeroplane’. Figuring out the connection creates incredibly strong neural pathways!
- Once you have practiced Metaphor Collisions with truly random inputs, you can also start to lightly curate your lists, to direct the results to more emotion-based ideas. The random word generator also has an ‘emotion’ filter. If you fill List 1 entirely with emotions, then you get something like this:
List 1: sorrow, remorse, disappointment, love, anticipation
List 2 (random concrete): sweater, bulb, desktop, flower, hair
Love is a sweater.
Sorrow is a bulb.
Disappointment is a flower.
It truly makes the mind hum with possibility.
Many thanks to my teacher, friend, and mentor Pat Pattison for introducing me to this exercise.
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Top 5 Exercises for Coming Up With Great Song Lyric Ideas—#1: Sense Writing.
In this series, I’ll go through my all-time Top 5 Exercises for generating lyric ideas, whether I’ve got a song idea going already or not.
These exercises don’t require inspiration. They mostly require 10 minutes and a pen. Just like anything in life, you can get better at writing great lyrics with practice. I hope these exercises give you something to practice with.
- Sense Writing
Sense Writing is a timed, 10-minute prose-writing exercise that I learned from Pat Pattison, and is beloved by a cavalry of incredible songwriters, including Gillian Welch, John Mayer, and Liz Longley.
Here’s How it Works.
- Find a random prompt. At the beginning, using an ‘object’ prompt is best (something tangible you can see/feel/hold/touch). You can find random prompts on any day in these spots:
You can also collect prompts yourself, by simply coming up with a long list of objects (ie things) that you can draw on whenever you sit down to write. The key here—at the beginning of your Sense Writing journey—is randomness. The prompt must be something unexpected.
- Set a timer for 10 minutes, and write continuously. Don’t edit yourself or censor your writing. You’ve got to let the rusty water run to get to the clear stuff. This exercise isn’t lyric writing per se; it’s exploration. It’s a walk in the woods. Don’t worry about how good your shoes look. Look around and see what’s on the path instead, without judgment.
A few tips.
Do not try to write lyrics in this phase. No rhyming. No rhythmic meter. It will slow you, and put handcuffs on your ability to truly explore what arises.
Don’t write for longer than 10 minutes. It’s really easy (and common at the beginning) to get into ‘flow’ around minute 8, to hear the timer go off, and to think, “Oh I’m in it now; I’ll just keep going”. Don’t. You won’t get stronger unless you keep that 10-minute wall to push against. What you will find, if you stick to 10 minutes, is that you get faster at hitting flow.
You will also find the exercise more sustainable over the long term. If you let it spiral out to 20 minutes, it becomes a ‘20-minute exercise,’ which is infinitely harder to convince yourself to do on a regular basis than a 10-minute exercise!
- Stay Sense-bound. This is the most crucial part of Sense Writing—this is what we’re really here for.
The most important limitation on this type of writing is that you are deliberately trying to use all of your senses to paint a vivid picture of whatever scene, situation, event, or memory arises. Sometimes your writing will start out as a series of fleeting associations with the prompt—this is you pushing the jenga pieces of your mind, until you find one that moves a little more easily, then going deeper into that one.
When you find one that moves, your aim to is be descriptive with all of the senses:
SIGHT SOUND SMELL TASTE TOUCH
Make sure you move around the senses, touching on all of them through your writing.
A few tips.
Try starting a few Sense Writes in the week with a sense other than sight or sound. Those are our dominant senses, and starting with the other senses pushes our mind and memories into different places.
Turn the dial up on the level of detail you go into. Instead of ‘the kitchen smelled like dinner cooking’, keep going. Fill it with the specifics: “the kitchen smelled of dinner cooking: rosemary, thyme, and a pinch of chilli.”
There are two other ‘senses’ that we can tap into as well: the ‘inside body’ sense (which is the physical sensations happening inside our body), and the ‘movement’ sense (where describe the way people and objects move in space). For more detail on these senses, check out this video.
Sense Writing works best if you do it every day for at least 2 weeks (and then, at least 3 times a week for…ever 🙂 ).
Examples of Sense Writing
Here’s one I did recently, with notations on the different senses:
I was 8 years old – beach holiday in the australian summer – sleeping with sand in my toes, crusting in my hair, and behind ears (touch). The salt of the sea, warm and moist in the air (touch and smell). The evening buzzing and alive with the rhythmic pulse of cicadas, together creating a screeching high pitched whistle that filled the air…(sound)
That afternoon, I learned to wolf whistle. Two fingers of each hand shoved into my mouth (visual, touch, inside body) – the tongue has to be curled back like Elvis’ hair (visual), then blow. At first, spit dribbling down my chin, and hot air just wheezing out (touch, sound). And then a short sharp sound. My heart racing, thumping against the cage of my ribs (inside body) – some kind of possibility opening up. I could taste the seaweed of the beach on my fingers and the spit glossing my lips (taste), as the sound sharpened, until finally shooting out as the loudest most ear rattling sound – a wolf whistle! (sound)
The sheer power of being 8 years old and able to create that sound! The sound waves hurtling past my lips and crashing through glass, sweeping out onto the street (movement) and joining those damn cicadas…as the indigo twilight started to wash its ink over the day, turning the street gray, the blanket of the sky sweeping closed (visual), but the sound of those cicadas still droning into the salty night…(sound)
How to Use Sense Writing to Write Lyrics
- Keep the best lines for later. Mine your writing for gold nuggets—lines, phrases, or even words that are interesting and evocative. Put them into a list:
sleeping with sand in my toes
The salt of the sea
The evening buzzing and alive
curled back like Elvis’ hair
thumping against the cage of my ribs
hurtling past my lips and crashing through glass
sweeping out onto the street
wash its ink over the day
turning the street gray
blanket of the sky
Here’s the secret:
I can use any of these lines in any song I like. It doesn’t have to be a song about learning to wolf whistle. Or even a song about childhood (though I like that idea…more on that in a moment). But there are some lovely descriptions here of a summer evening that I could use for any song at all.
In fact, sometimes keeping this list of lines in a doc without the prompt, then leaving them alone for a few weeks can help detach the lines from their original context, and allows me to use them for absolutely anything. What I find is that a few weeks later, I might read a line like ‘sweeping out onto the street’ and it will attach to an idea that I have been wanting to write about…so I might get something like:
In fading moments of indigo twilight
We are wrapped in the blanket of the sky
And spilling out onto the street
You are I are a bottle of wine
- Writing to find out what we are writing about. One of the primary benefits of Sense Writing is that our subconscious comes out to play. We can’t help it. Our brains are meaning-makers. The most seemingly random prompt almost always associates with a memory, scene, or situation that has an emotional imprint on us—and this is the stuff of song.
In my example above, the line that really stands out to me is: “The sheer power of being 8 years old and able to create that sound!” To me this is a short story about finding a voice as a young kid, which is also a story about feeling powerless. About needing voice. About needing to make a sound loud enough to be heard. There’s something in there worth exploring.
- Use it to write a section idea. I use Sense Writing when I have a song on the go, and specifically when I know what I want a section of lyric to be about (or how I want it to function in the song), but I don’t actually have lyrics for it yet.
Let me give you an example. I was working on an album project for Penguin Random House audio, writing an album of songs about motherhood. With the particular song I was working on at the time, I knew what I wanted the song to be about: the early stages of being mostly confined at home with a tiny infant.
I also had a title—Cocoon—and a Song Map: an outline of where the song starts, develops, and how it would finish.
Here’s the outline for Verse 1:
The outside world has never looked so beautiful. But I can’t go out. I’m stuck inside, wrapped up in this cocoon.
Here is a part of the Sense Write I did based on that idea (the prompt I gave myself was: “summer day”):
The sky outside so wide and blue, is sparkling, twinkling, glittering, a giant blue ocean whose tide is pulling on us, like a sapphire in the crown of cosmic gods
But the sky and the sun can both go away because we’re not going outside today, we don’t need to go outside today…
Here is the lyric to Verse 1:
The sky outside’s a sapphire sea
Whose tide is pulling me out
But the sun and sky and ocean too
Will all just have to wait
Because I’m not going outside today
I’m happy alone with you
Wrapped up here inside this cocoon
- Clearing the decks. The final way I use Sense Writing as a lyric writer is simply as a daily writing practice. A way to start my day, to put my mind into gear, to power up my songwriter brain, so that I am more primed to notice: notice details, pay attention to senses, become aware of how one thing connects to another. Even if I use nothing from a particular Sense Write in a song’s lyrics, it is always worth it.
Why Sense Writing?
Sense Writing trains you to turn ideas into imagery, and imagery is the most powerful way to connect with the minds and hearts of someone else.
As Leonard Cohen said: “We seem to be able to relate to detail. We seem to have an appetite for it. It seems our days are made of details, and if you can get the sense of another person’s day in details, your own day of details is summoned in your mind in some way rather than just a general line like “the days went by” (from Songwriters on Songwriting, ed. Paul Zollo).
Pair this article with:
The Best Method for Writing a Good Song
Examples of Sense Writing
The first exercise I run in any lyric writing class is called ‘Sense Writing,’ which is essentially the same as Pat Pattison’s Object Writing (which you can find out more about here). I’ve written before about Sense Writing, and recently put out a YouTube video that explains it, which you can watch here:
It’s one of my top ‘go to’ methods for getting a song idea going, for finding out what I have to write about (even when I’m not starting out with any specific ideas), and also one of my go-to ways of fleshing out ideas for lyrics when I DO have an idea on the go.
I thought it would be a useful reference to also post some examples of what my Sense Writes look like (though there is no stylistic requirement here—the only parameter is to stay sense-bound, and push yourself to turn the dial up on the level of detail), and then to show you how one of the Sense Writes might then translate into lyrics. Here we go!
Sense Writing Examples
"Destitute funeral", the woman's voice over the phone had a quiver in it as she said the words. I could suddenly feel the sweat of my ear moistening the plastic screen protector of my phone. I didn't realise that ears sweat. A small baby fist of tension opened and shut at my larynx, a trigger of righteous outrage flared somewhere in my stomach. That word, 'destitute'. t conjured images of grey dread locks with rat shit in them, and urine-soaked cardboard boxes. Or perhaps of wailing orphans, or dustbowl leather-skinned cowboys and grey-wood furniture piled onto the front of yellow grassed lawn, rusty nails sticking out. Of nameless locals driving by in their pickups, narrowing their eyes to a slit, glaring at you with sharp shadows, one hand on the wheel, the other hand on the car door, window rolled down, a lop-sided cigarette precariously leaning of the cliff of their lip. Destitute was curled lips, snarling facial gestures, stuck in an ice-wall of silence."Oh ok, that's what they call it then. A 'destitute funeral," I murmured back to the social work woman on the other end of my iPhone. "Yes, sorry. I don't know why they call it that..." Well, I do. They call it that so that you feel this barrage of guilt and shame, and social knuckle to the solar plexus, because they don't want just everybody to know that it's not actually necessary to pay a company the extortion of $5000 to simply burn a body.
One thing I like to do shortly after a Sense Write is to mine it for interesting lines and ideas, and put them in a separate document. Here’s what I extracted from this:
a lop-sided cigarettes
The sand beneath her toes makes a squeak like a mouse, like rubber, hot wheels on tarmac. It is warm but only on the surface. As her toes displace the upper crust, beneath is moist, darker sand, cooler, more secretive; earth's clay, more maleable, shapable, building castles and caves and channels for water to run, for worlds to emerge, for princes and princesses and dragons to suddenly burst into life, for the all powerful narrator to dictate outcomes, controlling tiny imaginary lives. Small, frail, hapless characters wrapped up in a fiction they don't even know exists; one swipe and the castle explodes, shards of sand hurling through the air, walls collapsing, the moat imploding, the water channel driven to chaos, spreading back into the dark sand beneath, joining with the waves that lick the shoreline and then sigh back into the vast glittering sapphire of sea. Salt and seaweed and hot chip fry. She abandons the narrative, and looks out into the blue, where the blue gradient gets almost black as it reaches for the horizon. Out at the edge of the water world, the line is not straight, but it's hard to even get a hold on. The horizon line quivers out there, a nervous distance, the arc of the earth actually visible if your imagination comes to stand next to you. The line out there shimmers, a magic portal, another world at the drop off, where gravity might make a mistake and flick you into space, or drag you down.The water imitates the sand. The top inch is warm, but as the sand slimes upward of the ankle, the water becomes cold, bracing, sticking to the surface of the skin, gripping goose flesh. The body responds with a frantic reciprocity, shifting its temperature to meet the embrace, trying to match the strength of the handshake.Her chest contracts, heart a little mouse in a cage suddenly submerged, quick gasp for air as the cold vice surrounds the shoulders, but the body somehow knows the water, and within mere seconds the borderline between skin and sea is gone.
Here I’ve just bolded the lines and ideas I was immediately drawn to afterwards.
You just don't know how good what you have is as a kid.2 storey art deco house. Caramel coloured carpet, but for two kids, it was a place to roll around in, to lie down laughing, grasping at our bellies, wheezing laughter through tears. It was a place for me to put on my parents' records: Janis Joplin, Muddy Waters, Donovan, Chuck Berry, turn on the gas heater in the winter - tick tick floooommmff! - and thrash my limbs around, spin my body til my mind entered the music and the music fused with my blood and we were one swirling whirl, one smoke curl burning,one small house on fire, dancing like there was nothing else.My room painted sky blue, then layered over in lilac. My room ha da door leading out to the top deck vernadah. On summer night, I would straddle my dad, and he would tell me stories. I could feel his voice in my legs, I could feel the bass rumbling in his guts. The Corkscrew Ballerina! His belly button was the animation of her legs leaping, until her own pirouhette overtook her, She spun and spun until she burned a hole in the ground and fell straight through the floor!I would squeal in anticipation and delight, somehow still ravaged by the tension, even though I'd heard the story 10 times before.Until one telling - some fuse in my brain rewired itself away from childhood delight, and simply short-circuited. The tension blinked out in an instant, and the story no longer had the same power over me. I knew it was a story, could not suspend the disbelief any more. AS if cynicism just blooms one day like an algae that takes over the whole river in a day. As if knowledge (becomes understanding) somehow means defeat. The defeat of delight.Our backyard was big enough to build speed on a bike. We would pick lilipillies in late winter, and catch stink bugs in summer. I would watch the bees praying at each purple jacaranda bell, their religiosity habitual and efficient, each prayer finished with thanks.
Turning a Sense Write into Lyrics
Here is a Sense Write, followed by a lyric idea I have drawn out of it. Notice how I am pulling together words and sounds that have a sense of sonic connection, and obviously adding in structural elements that help something sound like a lyric: rhythm, rhyme, a consistent number of lines per section, etc.
wicker baskets, bric a brac, nick knacks, garage sale. old paperbacks, dog-eared, year yellowed, brown framed pages blending to cream. old bits of metal, nails, screws, rust sprinkled, once useful, now objects without a purpose. old toys wrapped up in plastic bags. a once-pink teddy, now sun bleached and frayed. an old woman sitting under a hawaiian umbrella, smoking a cigarette like it's the 80s, with cigarette smoke curling around her fingers, snaking through her hair, and shrouding the air just above her in tufts of white. the crackle of the nicotine between her lips. lip stick seeping into the small cracks and canyons of her old lips. the radio on next to her, an old black and tan wireless, the antenna cocked at an uncanny angle, leaning hard to the left like an old man leaning on a wall. the fire crackle of an AM station. edith piaf warbling, beach boys crooning. i can't find what i'm looking for, as if you come to a garage sale with a purpose...and a small but laden grey cloud suddenly sprouts above us. it starts to rain lightly, but the old smoking lady is still sun-bathed, her smoke now overlaid by a romantic sparkle of silver rain, glittering in the sunshine. i can now see that she was once a total babe. the sinews of her arms were once smooth surfaces curving gracefully at angles - clean elbow, the precipitous shelf of a collar bone. those lips once drew attention to themselves, when the smoke would cascade out like a slow-exposure waterfall. and i see her dancing, by herself, holding a glass of wine, standing at a window, the reflection of herself superimposed onto a night dotted by the candles of light from the town below. her reflection adding beauty to the scene, as music filled the room, traced over her shoulders, brushed her hair, and laid its fingers on her collarbones. now she is selling everything.
Wicker baskets and old paperbacks
Nick knacks and bric a brac
She’s selling off her memories
She doesn’t need them anymore
Her cigarette smoke is curling through her hair
She leans back in an old wicker chair
On request she slides off her wedding ring
She’s selling everything
Turn your inspiration into beautiful songs with step-by-step guidance through two professional songwriting methods.
120 Sense Writing Prompts
If you’re already familiar with Sense Writing (aka Object Writing), feel free to skip ahead to the prompts below. If Sense Writing is new to you, here’s a little primer.
What is Sense Writing?
Sense Writing is a timed 10-minute writing exercise, in which you take a prompt, and use that prompt as a gateway into whatever association arises for you based on the prompt.
It’s like free-writing, in the sense that you write continuously for 10 minutes, without editing yourself, and without ‘writing lyrics’. So no rhyme, no rhythm. Just sentences. The difference between Sense Writing and free writing is that in Sense Writing, you stay focused on using the senses to describe the scene, situation, or moment that arises in response to the prompt.
Sense Writing is based on lyric writing teacher Pat Pattison’s ‘Object Writing’. You can explore it in more detail here:
Why Sense Writing?
Sense Writing is the single most useful writing exercise that I have ever come across in my life as a songwriter.
I use it on days when I have no idea what to write about.
I use it when I’m in the middle of a song, and I’m looking for lyrics to furnish a particular idea.
Sense Writing has the beauty of being a tool you can always default to when looking for ideas, as well as being a tool that strengthens your ability to convert ideas into specific, sensory imagery. And, it only takes 10 minutes or less.
Starting with objects is a good strategy, as it keeps you grounded in the physical world.
As you progress, dip into the prompts in other categories, understanding that the goal is ALWAYS to use the prompt as a springboard into a specific scene, situation, or moment, and to use vivid, descriptive sense-bound language to explore that moment in writing.
COFFEE CUP, OLD T-SHIRT, FIRE PIT, MILKSHAKE, WALLET, PAINTING, MARBLE, SANDWICH, ANKLE, CABINET, BITUMEN, SUMMER RAIN, DUCT TAPE, FUTON, MOON, WEED, SKETCH, FINGERNAIL, TICKET, TOOTH
FARMER, DANCER, OLYMPIC BOXER, GRANDFATHER, SURGEON, TEACHER, FIRST LOVE, QUEEN, RETIREE, MIDDLE CHILD, MAGICIAN, CLEANER, PATIENT, LIBRARIAN, ACTOR, WAITER, ROCK CLIMBER, NEIGHBOUR, LAST PERSON TO LEAVE, BULLY
MALL, COUCH, KITCHEN, CLASSROOM, ALLEYWAY, TRAIN STATION, AIRPORT, GRANDMA'S HOUSE, UNDER THE BED, SUPERMARKET, GRAVEYARD, HOTEL, TUNNEL, HOSPITAL, FRONT PORCH, CAMPSITE, CANYON, OUTER SPACE, FRONTLINE
WEDDING, FUNERAL, 7TH BIRTHDAY PARTY, GRADUATION, FIRST KISS, NEW YEAR'S EVE, 3A.M., AUTUMN, SCHOOL BELL, LUNCH BREAK, CONCERT, MOVING OUT, FIRST DAY, SUNRISE, FAMILY HOLIDAY, SWIMMING, MIDNIGHT, SAYING SORRY, PROTEST, WILDFIRE
DELIGHT, BOREDOM, HUMILITY, NOSTALGIA, ENVY, DEFENSIVENESS, CONFUSION, UNCERTAINTY, CONTENT, SCHADENFREUDE, LOVE, RELIEF, SURPRISE, IMPATIENCE, DENIAL, ANXIETY, ANTICIPATION, NERVOUSNESS, REMORSE, SATISFACTION
STUCK, CONNECTION, IMPRESSION, RESPONSE, CHEMISTRY, AFFAIR, COLD, CELEBRATION, FORGIVENESS, GROWING OLDER, ELECTION, TRADITION, PRIORITY, DEPARTURE, ECONOMY, OPINION, COUNTRY, NEWS, REPUTATION, OPPORTUNITY
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Writing Tips from George Orwell
One of the most incisive essays I have ever read on the art of writing is the short and stunning piece, ‘Politics and the English Language‘, written by George Orwell in 1947. Here, Orwell described a cliche as a ‘dying metaphor’. Orwell follows up with a succinct list of guides to follow:
- Never use a metaphor, simile, or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print.
- Never use a long word where a short one will do.
- If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out.
- Never use the passive where you can use the active.
- Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word, or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent.
- Break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous.
If it hasn’t crossed your desk yet, I highly recommend it. You can access it here.
I Have a Confession to Make
I have a public confession to make. I have a serious problem—a profound weakness, and it only gets worse with age.
I am completely, totally, helplessly in love with reading. But not just one book. I find myself embroiled, entangled, enmeshed, ensnared, and ensnarled in reading sometimes more than 10 books at a time. It’s not healthy. If I read one at a time, I could probably read more in a year. But I can’t. It doesn’t work like that.
I now play mental tricks with myself to justify the habit, creating different ‘categories’ of books. It started out simple: Fiction and Non-Fiction. And then I started reading books about writing. Fiction, Non-Fiction, and Writing. And then I picked up a few on interesting psychology research: Fiction, Non-Fiction, Writing, and Psychology (sub-category, Non-Fiction). Next came books not just on writing, but on specific grammar and style. Fiction, Non-Fiction (sub-category: Psychology, and also Science snuck in there somehow), Writing (sub-category, grammar and style). And then Poetry. And then Short Stories. And, um, Krista Tippett (maybe, Books by Podcasters?).
I feel good now, though. I feel lighter that I’ve let you know about my problem. Maybe I can add a few more books now that I’ve shed the weight of this secret…
In the spirit of National Book Week, I am going to post the 5th sentence on page 56 of each of the books I’m currently reading:
If you ask someone to recall a seemingly random assortment of words verbatim, starting with the first word— “was smelled front that his the peanuts he good hunger eating barely woman of so in could that him contain”—the average person will remember only the first six of those words. Peak: Secrets from the New Science of Expertise, Anders Ericsson and Robert Pool.
“When you rewrite, your main job is taking out all the things that are not in the story.” On Writing, Stephen King.
I have never felt so terrible. Tenth of December, George Saunders.
“I’ve recently been thinking more and more that it’s so astonishing that the Old Testament prophets hardly ever discuss an “issue.”” Becoming Wise: An Inquiry into the Mystery and Art of Living, Krista Tippett.
I could settle on nothing. House of Light, Mary Oliver.
That man was Tycho Brahe. Cosmos, Carl Sagan.
From the people comes political support or opposition; from the public comes artistic appreciation or commercial patronage. The Elements of Style, Stunk and White.
Better yet, the genetic sequences could be recorded by feeding samples into machines, taking the DNA strands apart one base pair at a time, and preserving them as strings of data that could easily be archived and replicated. Seveneves, Neal Stephenson.