Monday, March 11, 2013

Season Your Writing Wisely

My son made a pot of chili last week. He’s a great cook, and his chili is super. But I remember when he was working on this particular recipe. In one batch, the jalapeno peppers were so strong, the batch had to be diluted. He said he liked the taste of jalapenos, and he thought by adding more, the chili would be better. Instead, the extra peppers simply shouted, ‘Here I am!’
I thought of that over the weekend when I picked up a book from a multi-published author whose work I had yet to read. I was pulled into the story immediately. What a good book, I thought as I turned the pages. Along about the fourth page, I stopped to examine why I liked it. The fact I stopped is a sign, right? So I went back and identified examples of excellent rhetorical techniques, beautifully woven throughout. I identified some of those familiar devices as ones I use, ones, in fact, I recommend to my English students.

Then I continued reading. Ah, another wonderful use of that particular device. And another. Soon my attention was diverted from the story, and I found myself congratulating the author (silently, of course) at the masterful use of a variety of elements to heighten drama, to increase effect, to intensify emotion.

I continued reading but a little slower. I lost track of the plot; the characters began to slip away; all I could do was identify yet another (admittedly brilliantly executed) rhetorical device.
I kept longing for a simple sentence.
Now don’t get me wrong. The author is a popular one whose work receives excellent reviews. I undoubtedly will read more of the author’s work.
And I’m probably among the few who even consider this a problem. But it can be.

Rhetorical devices are like spices. Used in the right amount, they blend into the dish making it stand out, making diners clamor. Those diners may not be able to name the ingredients, but they know it’s the best dish they’ve ever eaten, and they want more.
So I’m making an admittedly dangerous suggestion here: Use specific techniques sparingly, to season the writing but in such a way that the reader doesn’t recognize what you’ve done. No need to use the same one on every page. Skip a page. Vary the techniques.
Because when I can recognize the jalapenos in my son’s chili, I know he’s used too many.