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.


  1. Brilliant comparison. It's much like varying your sentence structure, isn't it?

    Is it dinner time yet? For some odd reason, I'm now in the mood for chili. :)

  2. Hi Angel,

    LOL. Yep, sentence variety keeps your readers awake :)

    Thanks for commenting.

  3. Great comparison, Barb!

    I wish I had that problem. I tend to keep things too simple. :-)

  4. I kept thinking - I want chili now, LOL Great post, Barb! I like to keep things simple. If I try to get too "flowery" with my writing, I've found my editors cut things out. Sometimes the best way for me is to get straight to the point. I think that's why in life, I tend to be that way. I try to be diplomatic, but sometimes I'll just say it! I like people to get to the point, period, LOL

  5. That's a great analogy and I agree. Technique is good, but sometimes you have to get back to the basics too. Variety is the spice of life! :)

    I may have to make chili this week now. It made me hungry too, Kellie!

  6. I do like that analogy. I wish this were something I struggled with. Most days I feel like I'm just throwing words on the page without thought to technique at all. Of course, it's all part of learning about yourself and your writing style, I guess. Hopefully, for my sake, there's an audience out there who appreciates technique-less writing.

  7. Good post, Barb. I'm one of those people who spits it out plain jane and has to go back and put some fluff in my stories. But sometimes I'll work on something and realize that any regular person would read it and say it sounds pretentious.(I hate pretentiousness...brings to mind the pound of bullshit line in Steel Magnolias) Sometimes it's just more effective being plain jane. And yeah...chili tomorrow, I think. :)

  8. This is an excellent blog post, so I joined to follow your future posts. I'm looking more to reading more of your insights. So well said!