Category Archives: writing

How to write gleefully

This article was first published on The Editors’ Weekly, the blog of Editors Canada.

There are times when you want to make your prose more lively – if not flagrantly flippant then at least glancingly gleeful. Your words could land with a thump or splash or flit by with a twirl, but they must be sprightly. You want to write like a child. Well, no, not like a child – children aren’t very good writers; their sense of sentence structure is a bit squishy and scrawny – but like a child would write if a child had the skill of an adult. You want to be extra expressive.

Words are known by the company they keep, of course; words that show up most often in texts by or about children will have something of a childish air. But words are also often thought of on the basis of how they sound: we engage in phonetic profiling. If I said “I’m just credging this glivver,” before you find out what credging and glivver mean you might well imagine credging as something involving some effort or strain, and perhaps pushing or scraping, and glivver as something wet, shiny, fishlike, and/or mechanical. This is because credging sounds like dredging, budging, and several words to do with effort or constraint starting in cr– such as crank, crunch, and crush, and glivver sounds like flivver, river, glimmer, and other words related to light that start with gl– such as gleamglitter, and glint.

Words with sound clusters such as “kr–” and “gl–” and a number of others (including “fl–,” “sn–,” “spl–,” “spr–,” “tw–,” “–ump,” “–ash,” “–irl/–url,” and “–op”) have a greater-than-chance tendency to share some aspect of meaning with otherwise unrelated words containing the same sound clusters. These clusters are what linguists call phonaesthemes. They also tend to feel especially vivid – expressive, unrestrained, sometimes even childish. Glowing has one, while radiant doesn’t; snout does, while nose doesn’t; flop has two, while fail has none.

Phonaesthemes aren’t all onomatopoeia, though some are: “splash” sounds rather like a splash, but “glitter” doesn’t sound like glittering – glittering doesn’t have a sound. But they all have some degree of a performative air to them, which is why they seem so lively: their expressivity gains by association with onomatopoeia and sound symbolism (which is the sound associations we have that lead us, for instance, to expect a character named Tika to be smaller than one named Dubo).

But can throwing in a few words like dumpsplay, or snoot really make a text seem less dignified? The answer is yes. I know – I did a detailed study of how words containing phonaesthemes are used in different genres of writing and in different time periods in comparison with other words having the same general sense and length. And what’s most telling is how much some genres avoid them. Any writing where the author would not want to see unduly undignified will have far fewer phonaesthematic words than average. Academic writing in particular avoids them. Newspaper articles used to use very few; now they’ll sprinkle them throughout, tabloids especially. Political speeches avoided them in times past, but now they’ll plop the occasional one in. It doesn’t take more than one or two to add just that little glimpse of glee.

So if you’re at your desk working on a text that could be just a little spunkier, you may already know that you could be more gleeful with gleam than with shine, with slash than with cut, and with swirl than with circle. Now you know why.

Novel medical treatments

To go with my presentation “Translating medicalese into everyday English,” here’s the article that I wrote for The Editors’ Weekly, the blog of Editors Canada.

People with serious health problems are often subject to novel treatments. But that shouldn’t mean being treated like they’re in a novel. Continue reading

Translating medicalese into everyday English

I’ve spent nearly 20 years of my life helping people communicate healthcare information clearly and effectively to ordinary readers (among other things – I’m not a one-trick pony!). This year at the Editors Canada conference I gave a one-hour presentation sharing some of the important things I’ve learned.

Here’s the handout: harbeck.ca/James/Harbeck_Medicalese_Handout.pdf

And here’s the article I wrote for the Editors Canada blog to go with it: Novel medical treatments

If you work for a company that communicates healthcare information to ordinary people, I can come do a seminar for you with exercises – get in touch with me via jamesharbeck.com/contact/.

Here’s the presentation – all 56 minutes and 23 seconds of it:

When to Use Bad English

Here’s my presentation at the 2019 ACES conference in Providence on when and how to use “bad” English (not just swearwords but nonstandard grammar and other things some people look down on).

12 Gifts for Writers ebook

As promised, I have made an ebook (in PDF) of 12 Gifts for Writers. You can download it for free, pass it around to your friends, and – I hope – gain something from it. Just click on the link:

12 Gifts for Writers (PDF, 4.2 MB)

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12 Gifts for Writers audiobook

I’ve recorded my 12 Gifts for Writers as an audiobook, in separate chapters and as one big 64-minute binge-listen. It’s available now to everyone who sponsors me on Patreon at the $2-a-month level or higher, even for just one month! I’m making chapter 11 (“Everyone’s a writer”) free for everyone… just as a teaser. Here it is.

12. You already have a voice.

Here, read this:

…Parking the car (smooth sleek shiny grey) in the heated, lit underground lot, though at least a good five-ten blocks away from my destination (I’d have to be lacking in intelligence to be parking it any closer: there are certain rules must abide by in these things), and out once again – though unprotected this time – into the night air (cold & misty) for a little bit of a walk: certainly conspicuous in this, as yer not likes to be finding much of too many anybody out on the streets this time of night (especially in this part of town) without a damn good reason: and if the Men in Pink happen to glance you, you will most certainly be inquired as to why wherefore where when what who you are doing out this time of night, which being the accurate nature of your business, and so on and so forth ad infinitum nauseum et cetera. Goes without saying this being my aim to avoid (perhaps one reason for choosing the darker shades in a suit for wear this eve?).

That bale of braided turds, my friends, is the start of a short story by a writer who’s trying to find his voice. I wrote it when I was 18. Continue reading