The Habit Blog is the archive of The Habit Weekly. It is a trove of insight, wisdom, and practical advice on a variety of writing topics.

My love is, like, a red, red rose. Concerning similes.

Simile and metaphor require just as much precision as literal language.   (I’m tempted to say they require more precision.) Figurative language isn’t a hiatus from verbal rigor. I will grant that when you put different writers’ similes next to one another, you can get the impression that anything goes. Robert Burns says “My love is like a red, red rose.” Sir Philip Sidney says “My love is like to ice and I to fire.” I might say my love is like a summer’s day. Or I might say my love is like a hurricane. So which is it? you might ask.

Well, if you have ever loved anybody for any length of time, you already know that your love is sometimes like a red, red rose, sometimes like to ice, sometimes like a summer’s day, sometimes like a hurricane, and at other times like any number of other things. (I recently saw something thing that said, “My love is like a candle: forget about me, and I will burn your house down.”) 

If I say, “My love is like a hurricane,” in one sense I am broadening the reader’s conception of what love (or, perhaps, a lover) is like. But in another, very important sense, I am focusing and narrowing the reader’s attention on one particular aspect of what it is like to love another person.

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Obfuscation, thy name is Lebezyatnikov.

Yesterday I was reading quite a good article about Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment on a perfectly respectable website with an actual editorial board, and I ran across the following astonishing sentence: 

Having asked a man who lives in his building, a young intellectual committed to the “latest ideas” named Lebezyatnikov, for a loan, our clerk is coldly refused with the explanation from his neighbor that “in our era compassion has even been prohibited by science and that this is already being done in England, where they’ve developed political economy.”

In this week’s episode of The Habit, I will talk about how not to write sentences like that. It is my policy, in case you are wondering, never to hold up a bad writer to ridicule. This is a bad sentence perpetrated by a good writer whose editor was asleep at the wheel. It can happen to any of us

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Out of the fullness of the heart the mouth speaks.

A reader named Hannah recently asked: 

I love character development, but I’m struggling with giving my characters their own voices.  How can I give my characters their own voice? Right now they all talk or sound the way I would, but the characters need to be their own person with their own unique voice.

I have good news for Hannah. Loving character development is an important step toward writing distinct character voices. I know a few tricks that writers use to distinguish one character’s speech from another’s–grammar and syntax, word choice, non-standard spelling, catch-phrases, malapropism. I will address a few of those tricks toward the end of this letter. But those tricks aren’t worth a whole lot unless your dialogue is informed by a key principle: 

     Out of the fullness of the heart the mouth speaks.

Hannah says she loves characterization. What, exactly, is characterization? At the risk of over-simplifying, characterization is a matter of understanding (and helping the reader to understand) what a character wants, and how that character interacts with the world. Which is exactly where a character’s distinctive voice comes from. Why does a character say particular things in a particular way? Because he is a unique collection of desires and he has modes of interacting with the world that are distinct from those of any other person. Out of the fullness of the heart the mouth speaks. 

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“Let Us Not Mock God with Metaphor”

As a writer, I am interested in how metaphor works. I am also interested in metaphor because I am a Christian. People of faith have to get comfortable with figurative language: Christians speak of Jesus as the Lamb of God, but we also know that Jesus was a man, not a lamb. And some of the fiercest debates among Christians orbit around questions of metaphor. When Jesus broke the bread and said “This is my body,” to what extent was He speaking metaphorically? To what extent is the priest or the pastor speaking metaphorically when he holds up the Host or the bread and says “This is the body of Christ, broken for you?” (The Latin Hoc est corpus meum, by the way, is the origin of the phrase hocus pocus).

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Tomorrow I will have eaten the cake you were talking about yesterday. On verb tenses.

Adam Callis recently asked, 

I’d love to hear your thoughts on using was vs. had been. I run into this a lot when I’m writing about a past event/memory in detail, and I feel like I often overthink it and use had been too much when I could just as well use was.


I had been walking that morning when I’d seen something that had caught my eye.

as  opposed to:

I was walking that morning when I saw something that caught my eye.

Adam is talking about the difference between simple past tense and past perfect tense. I mentioned a couple of weeks ago that if you are a native speaker of English, you probably get your grammar right at least 90% of the time. But one area where even native speakers get tangled up is verb tense, and especially the perfect tenses.

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A Black Hat, A Wooden Leg, and a Prison-Issue Joke Book

There was this guy who got sent to prison. On his first day, he was given some prison-issue clothes, some prison-issue shoes, a prison-issue toothbrush, a prison-issue comb, and a prison-issue joke book.

That first night, as he lay in his bunk after lights-out, he heard someone call out, “Forty-seven!” and the cell block rang with laughter. Someone else yelled, “Seventy-two!” and again everybody howled laughing.

The new prisoner asked his cell-mate what was going on, and the crusty old lifer said, “By now we’ve all memorized the prison-issue joke book, so instead of telling jokes, we just tell the numbers of the jokes as they appear in the joke book. It saves a lot of time.”

Eager to make friends, the new prisoner clicked on his prison-issue flashlight and thumbed through his prison-issue joke book looking for a joke to tell. “I’ve got one!” he called out. “Thirteen!”

Silence. From the bunk below he heard his old cell-mate sigh. “Some people just don’t know how to tell a joke,” he said.

The preceding is a joke about the misuse of symbolism. I offer it here because a couple of readers of The Habit have asked me about symbols; a reader named Teresa asked how to use symbolism “without sounding preachy or cliched.” 

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You Know More Grammar Than You Think

If you are a native speaker of English, you get English grammar right about 95% of the time. I fabricated that statistic, but I suspect I’m correct nevertheless. You know when a noun needs an article, and you know whether to use the definite article (the) or an indefinite article (a/an). You can form the passive voice or a nominative absolute all day long, with your eyes closed. You know that an adjective goes before the noun it modifies (you always say the blue truck and never the truck blue), and you also know that an adjectival clause goes after the noun it modifies (you always say the truck that belongs to my dad and never the that belongs to my dad truck).

I realize that you may not know what a nominative absolute is or an adjectival clause or a definite or indefinite article, but you’ve been able to handle all of them since you were in about junior high. Sure, grammar mistakes happen, usually when one grammar rule comes into conflict with another, or when the grammar itself is an exception to a logical pattern. When a toddler says, “I eated my breakfast,” she isn’t being illogical, but overly logical. She is depending on good logic–the application of a pattern–when she needs to depend instead on something like rote memory. What surprises me is not the prevalence of grammar errors, but their relative scarcity. 

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Love Thy Reader (Part 2)

Last week I wrote about loving your reader—flipping the switch from writing for what you can get from the reader to writing for what you can give to the reader. I didn’t quite get around to practicalities, but here in Part 2 I will attempt to show how loving your reader changes the way you think about every aspect of writing, right down to your grammar.

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Love Thy Reader (Part 1)

Last week we talked about ways to move beyond the style of a “sophisticated fifth-grader.” A reader named Stacey asked another question about writing like a grown-up, but I think it gets even closer to the heart of the matter.

Essays.  Academic writing.  Is there a difference between an essay for school and an essay for readers (not writing for a teacher).  Do all essays need a thesis statement?

Most of us learn to write in an academic setting. Teachers give us assignments. We complete those assignments. They correct us. They congratulate us. We learn to give them what they’re looking for so that they give us what we’re looking for: good grades, approval, permission to advance to the next grade, perhaps a letter of recommendation. If you stay in the academic world, you write articles and books that get you jobs and promotions and tenure and, hopefully, the respect and awe of your peers.

The problem with academic writing is not that it’s overly formulaic or that it stifles creativity. Forms and formulas provide frameworks in which creativity can grow; the sonnet is a formula, but it doesn’t appear to have stifled William Shakespeare’s creativity one bit. For the less confident or “creative” student-writer, the formulas of academic writing are a godsend. We should probably erect a monument to the person who invented the five-paragraph essay.

No, the problem with academic writing goes much deeper than the formulas and rules and thesis statements, which are as easily put aside as a set of training wheels. The problem with academic writing is that it conditions us to write for what we can get rather than to write for what we can give.

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Gamble, Gambol, Ham and Gambrel: In Praise of Inefficiency

The great thing about Google is that it takes you straight to the information you want to find (or, in any case, straight to the information that the Keeper of the Algorithm wants you to find). The great thing about every other method of organizing and/or delivering information is that it DOESN’T take you straight to the information you want to find. 

Back when I was walking to school in the snow, uphill both ways, if you wanted to know something you had to go to the library and get a book. And in order to get that book, you had to walk past a lot of other books. This quaint fact accounts for a good 20% of my education. Fetching a book about, say, Shakespeare required me to scan whole shelves of other books about Shakespeare—books I didn’t even know I wanted or needed to read. In graduate school it wasn’t unusual for me to emerge from the stacks with six or seven books, but not the one I originally went looking for. You don’t know what you don’t know, and sometimes the only way to find out is through that highly inefficient, often inconvenient process known as wandering around. But as GK Chesterton observed, an inconvenience is only an adventure wrongly considered; an adventure is an inconvenience rightly considered.”

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Which Writers Make You Want to Write?

When I teach writing seminars, my favorite “introduce yourself” question is Which writers make you want to write? This is a different question from Who are your favorite writers? or Who do you think the best writers are? I love John Milton, but Paradise Lost has never inspired me to try my hand at epic poetry. And as much as I admire Faulkner’s writing, I’ve never wanted to write like Faulkner. (Surely we can all agree that one Faulkner is plenty.) 

There are writers I read when I want to read, and there are writers I read when I want to write. Charles Portis is a writer who makes me want to write. Portis is best known for True Grit. His lesser-known novel The Dog of the South is one of my all-time favorites. I make no claims for Charles Portis’s greatness. I never put his books in people’s hands and say, “You have to read this!” I just know that when I read The Dog of the South or True Grit, I feel emboldened to sit down and try writing another story. 

One thing I’ve learned from years of teaching is that writers have different gifts. It seems obvious when I put it that way, but when people self-evaluate, they tend to think in terms of being good at writing or less good at writing—as if writing were a single skill. Writing is a lot of skills, some of which will come more naturally to you than others. Part of my job as a writing instructor is to help writers realize what they’re good at, and to encourage them to build on those strengths. Some people have an ear for dialogue. Some people naturally think in terms of metaphor. I recently had a student who was outlandishly good at conjuring up sensory images. Describing a visit to a nursing home she wrote, “The room became warm and fusty and smelt like ham and moist bandages.” That’s an excellent sentence, and it was important for that writer to know it. We don’t always value the skills that come naturally to us, but those skills are exactly where we need to start. 

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Defenestrate. Pulchritude. Skunk. A Few Thoughts About Word Choice

In 1618, a crowd of angry Protestants threw two Catholic regents and their secretary from a third-story window at the Castle of Prague. All three survived the 70-foot fall, either because they were caught by angels or because they landed in a dung heap; you can probably guess which side of the conflict told which story. This act, which came to be known as the Second Defenestration of Prague, sparked the Thirty-Years’ War. The word ‘defenestration’ means the act of throwing a person out a window. It comes from the Latin de (from or away) + fenestra (window).

Every now and then somebody on Facebook will ask people about their favorite words. I always like looking at those lists. The word ‘defenestrate’ inevitably appears, and often quite early in the proceedings. I recently asked a friend why she liked the word. She wrote back, “I just love that such a word exists. It’s so remarkably specific.” I agree. It’s funny that such a specific word has made its way into our language. I also think it’s funny that the word didn’t get coined until the Second Defenestration of Prague. The First Defenestration of Prague, in 1419, sparked the Hussite War. At the Second Defenestration, the people of Prague apparently realized that starting wars by throwing people out windows was becoming a thing, and they should probably have a word for it.

I suspect people also like defenestrate because of the ironic distance that’s built right into it. It’s a Latinate, coolly rational word describing a violent act that one associates with hot-headed haste. It seems like a word that was invented to be used by Bertie Wooster.

As my students are no doubt tired of hearing, language conveys not only information but also experience. In defenestrate we have a big gap between the information conveyed (that is to say, the information you would find in a dictionary definition) and the experience depicted. There are words that sound like they were made up by somebody sitting at a desk, and there are words that sound like they grew out of the hurly-burly of human experience (hurly-burly, it occurs to me, belongs to the latter category). 

As the Bohemian mob closed in on the poor regents, nobody was saying, “Come on, boys, let’s defenestrate them!” If some rabble-rouser in the streets of Prague had said, “To the Castle! Let’s defenestrate the regents!” the members of the rabble wouldn’t know whether to bring pitchforks or brickbats or ropes. Or a box of Valentine’s candy. No, the word defenestration came into being when some pamphleteer sat at a desk and wrote, “In light of last week’s unfortunate defenestrations…”

For lack of a more precise way of putting it, some words just sound like what they are, and some words don’t. The word mellifluous is mellifluous, and the word lugubrious sounds melancholy and gloomy (and possibly even boo-hooey). If you fling somebody out a window, that verb fling matches the action in a way that defenestrate doesn’t (and never claimed to).

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Writer’s Block: A Tale of Woe

For a long time, I didn’t believe in writer’s block. I was on intimate terms with unproductivity, to be sure, but for the most part my failure to produce was a function of laziness and ill discipline. I didn’t want to dignify my bad habits with a name so glamorous as writer’s block. “Plumbers don’t get plumber’s block,” I used to say, “and lawyers don’t get lawyer’s block. If you’re a writer, sit down and write.” 

I do find it helpful to be as matter-of-fact and workmanlike as possible in my approach to writing. Showing up for work is a vital skill, no matter what your work happens to be. Nevertheless, the writing process is mysterious in ways that the plumbing process isn’t. (I mean no disrespect to plumbers; I worked on a plumbing crew for a couple of summers in my youth, so I can say from experience that plumbers’ inner lives are as rich and mysterious as anybody’s.)

Around 2009, however, I came to believe most earnestly in writer’s block; I was afflicted with a case of it that went well beyond mere laziness or ill discipline. I would sit at my desk for hours, for days, for weeks, and produce nothing. 

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Tom Wolfe and the Audience of One

Tom Wolfe died earlier this year. He was one of the originators of the so-called New Journalism of the 1960s and 70s (so, yes, he inspired a lot of really bad imitations, but I don’t see how we can blame him for that). His novel The Bonfire of the Vanities was an important chronicle of the excesses of Manhattan’s financial class in the 1980s. Also, he was exceedingly good at putting sentences together when he had a mind to.

One of his first big articles for Esquire was “The Kandy-Kolored Tangerine-Flake Streamline Baby,” about the custom-car culture of Southern California. After spending four weeks at an expensive hotel in Los Angeles, burning through lots of his publisher’s money, and taking pages and pages of notes, he was flattened by a bad case of writer’s block. He had piles of ideas and facts, and some great turns of phrase, but he just couldn’t seem to find the place to start. After weeks of wrestling around with it, he finally gave up. He told his editor, Byron Dobell, that he needed to drop the assignment. According to an interview Wolfe did with Terry Gross, Dobell told him just to hand over his notes so they could find a “competent writer” to make an article out of them.

So at about 9:00 that night, Tom Wolfe started writing a memo to his editor: 

Dear Byron,
The first place I saw customized cars was at a teen fair in North Hollywood, California…

He wrote through the night, producing fifty type-written pages. He sent them over toEsquiremagazine in the morning. Later that day, Byron Dobell called to say that he was just going to remove the “Dear Byron,” and run the whole memo as the article. 

As Tom Wolfe told Terry Gross,

By writing what I thought was a memorandum to a single individual who was about my own age, I had liberated myself from all the fears and all the constraints that you feel when you’re writing something as formal as a magazine article for a national audience.

Most of us aren’t writing magazine articles for national audiences. Nevertheless, there are all sorts of fears and constraints that can keep a writer from writing. For reasons I don’t entirely understand, many of the blocks go away when you write directly to or for a real person. Tom Wolfe said it can work for anybody once.

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Old English and a New Cuss Word–On Word Choice

Think of every barnyard animal you know. Cow. Pig. Chicken. Sheep. Horse. Duck. Goose. Every one of those words derives from Old English (also known as Anglo-Saxon). if you were to kick around the farm with the poet who wrote Beowulf, the two of you would use the same words (or, in any case, very similar words) for all the animals you saw (except turkeys; turkeys didn’t come to England until five or eight centuries after the Beowulf poet died). And, by the way, you would even use all the same words for the male and female variations for each animal. Bull, boar, sow, rooster, hen, ram, ewe, mare, drake, and gander are all Old English words. The one exception is stallion, for reasons that will soon become apparent.

But when the farmer calls you in for dinner, your easy communication with the Beowulf poet will quickly break down. When farm animals move from the barnyard to the dinner table, they drop their Old English names. The cow is now beef. The pig is pork. The sheep is mutton. The chicken, duck, and gooseare now poultry.

If you’ve ever taken a class in the history of the English language, you already know why all the names for barnyard animals derive from Anglo-Saxon and all the names for meat are of Latin origin. In 1066 AD the Norman French, led by William the Conqueror, defeated the English at the Battle of Hastings. King Harold II took an arrow through the eyeball, and that was the end of the Anglo-Saxons’ rule over the island that was named for them (England=Angle-Land). 

The Anglo-Saxons didn’t go anywhere. The population of Britain was still overwhelmingly Anglo-Saxon; but the ruling families were all French. The guy out in the barnyard or pasture taking care of the chickens and sheep and pigs and cows and ducks and geese was Anglo-Saxon; there was no reason for him to change the names he called the animals. But when those same animals were slaughtered and cooked for the French landowner and his family, they thoroughly enjoyed their boeuf or porc or moton or poulterie. (That Anglo-Saxon farmhand, by the way, wasn’t getting a lot of meat. He was eating a lot of beansand peas–both Old English words.)

Though the French ousted the Anglo-Saxon nobility in England, the French language never ousted the Anglo-Saxon language. Instead, Anglo-Saxon (Old English) absorbed thousands and thousands of French (that is to say, Latinate) words. For the most part, those new French words didn’t replace the English words. They were simply added to the English lexicon. So our language has countless word-pairs in which a word of Old English origin and a word of Latinate origin mean the same thing.

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Spontaneous Human Combustion–What a Stroke of Luck!

When I was a boy, I read a comic book about which I remember only one scene: the protagonists are being menaced by a bad guy with a gun. They get backed into a corner (literally, if memory serves, not figuratively), and just when it is obvious that there is no way they could possibly escape, the bad guy bursts into flames right before their eyes. One protagonist turns to the other and says, “Spontaneous human combustion: what a stroke of luck!”

This is an extreme case of a storytelling offense known as deus ex machina–literally, the god out of the machinery. The term derives from the Roman theater; as Roman theatergoers’ appetite grew for novelty and plot twists (not to mention mistaken identities and twins separated at birth), the plots of Roman plays grew increasingly complex. In fact, they sometimes grew so convoluted that the playwrights gave up on actually resolving the complications in a narratively believable way. Instead, they would write a scene in which a god would appear and resolve all the characters’ problems with the wave of a wand. That way, everybody could get home at a reasonable hour. The actor playing the god would often be lowered on a rope from machinery installed in the rafters for this purpose. Hence the phrase, the god out of the machinery, deus ex machina.

While many of us believe that there actually is a God who is fully able to reach out of the machinery of the universe to resolve problems of human making–a God who often does just that (and, indeed, who made the machinery)–few of us are interested in stories in which a human writer invents problems which he then resolves by inventing a divine intervention, or a happy coincidence or a timely case of spontaneous human combustion.

The deus ex machina highlights a tension that exists in almost all storytelling, both fiction and non-fiction. When we tell stories, we are balancing goals that are often at odds with one another. On the one hand, the storyteller is always trying to depict events that feel true to the way things actually happen in the world God made. On the other hand, the writer has other goals as well: he wants to communicate information that the reader needs to know in order to make sense of the story–information about characters and their relations to one another, information about setting, perhaps information about events that have led up to the events of the story at hand. He wants to create tension, then resolve that tension.* It isn’t always easy to harmonize these goals with the goal of writing stories that feel true to real life.

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Good Grammar v. Proper Usage–And a Word About Grammar Bullies

Good grammar is one of the most important ways that you love your readers. 

Grammar instruction usually focuses on proper usage. This approach is writer-centric, not reader-centric. You learn correct usage so that your reader will know that you are intelligent, educated, and part of the club. You know the difference between its and it’s. You know the difference between their and there and they’re.

I’m not opposed to correct usage, of course. I strive for it myself. But I strive for correct usage because I love myself, not because I love my reader. I want people to think I’m intelligent, educated, and part of the club.

So what might a reader-centric view of grammar look like? For one thing, it focuses on the truth that good grammar guides a reader from idea to idea to idea; grammar is a way of managing a reader’s expectations for receiving new information. 

Good grammar, then, isn’t a way of demonstrating a writer’s expertise, but a way of reaching out to the reader. It says, “Look here, dear reader, I want to show you something.” Grammar is the rules of the road for verbal clarity. And clarity is one of the most important ways you demonstrate a love for your material and a love for your reader. 

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When You Can’t Get No Satisfaction: Double Negatives

President Trump has always been a practitioner of idiosyncratic grammar and syntax. “I have the best words,” he once announced. But if you write much, you know that having the best words is only half the battle—actually, less than half the battle. More important is arranging words in a meaningful order. Also, it is important to use words in a way that corresponds to reality. 

Last week, President Trump drew attention to that much-maligned grammatical construction, the double negative. There are two quite distinct uses of the double negative: one is socially acceptable, and one is less socially acceptable. 

In school you were taught not to say things like “I don’t have no money” or “I can’t get no satisfaction.” Your English teacher probably got a very prim look on his or her face and said something along these lines: “Two negatives make a positive, so ‘I don’t have no money’ means you DO have money.”

Well, maybe. But I don’t think anybody in the history of the world ever heard Mick Jagger sing, “I can’t get no satisfaction” and thought, “Sounds like Mick Jagger is able to get some satisfaction.”

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