Woeful Wow Words

Study Hemingway, particularly his early work and learn how to write short sentences and how to eschew all those beastly adjectives. Surely it is better to say ‘She was a tall girl with a bosom’ than ‘She was a tall girl with a shapely, prominent bosom’, or some such rubbish. The first one says it all.

  • Extract from letter Roald Dahl wrote to 17 year old student aspiring to be a writer.

I found the Dahl quote, written in 1980 but apparently discovered and made public only last year, when I was searching for an article about the primary school student who recently wrote to children’s author Joanna Nadin chastising her for beginning a sentence with a conjunction in her book The Stepmonster. I shall return to this in a moment.

I have not been aware of ‘Wow’ words until recently, first when I saw some flaunted with the piece of exemplar descriptive writing I have criticised here a few days ago, and then subsequently as I have researched these. My ignorance isn’t surprising. They would appear to be largely a primary school initiative – I only ever taught at secondary level – and I presume they were born out of the Literary Strategy, that mad structural teaching monolith of the then Labour government and also professionals that did so much to damage teaching and learning, and those kowtowed to follow its dictates.

I do know something about that kowtowing. Even at secondary level I was as Head of English put under consistent pressure to make Key Stage 3 schemes of work reflect elements of the Strategy, and all Advisory Service meetings/conferences that occurred in the latter and dreadful part of my tenure – at least the last 10 years – were consumed with this and directed by zealots who bought into its drivel. But so did I at times: I confess I even framed by Strategy terms a collection of three creative writing resources I produced  to make them marketable. I always asserted the primacy of its creative purpose, but it would be deceptive to say I didn’t employ its terminology. It is frightening what fear and loathing can make one do.

Not requiring any support for my negative views regarding this, I do, however, have one memorable and salient incident to corroborate: it was when one of those advisers who had lead many LS gospel meetings admitted years after implementation it had all been terribly wrong. Words to that effect. I cannot remember exactly. I think I was there. It is a blur. A blur of fury that still fuels the disdain.

In the Times Education Supplement report here on the Nadin incident, it quotes the author’s refreshing and cogent dismissal of the use of wow words by primary school students, calling them ‘ugly’ which is succinct and most apt [I nearly put the adverb ‘superbly’ before succinct, but didn’t: do read on, especially Stephen King]. Her reported advice on what makes good writing is one I wholeheartedly support, and have done so consistently in the postings on this blog about writing. Reading this last night, I searched out other authors’ advice on writing, and of course there are countless sites where these are collected, and as famous quotes, oft repeated. I have made a small selection of those that deal mostly with the use of words [three are on punctuation; one more general] and these follow for your interest.

Substitute ‘damn’ every time you’re inclined to write ‘very;’ your editor will delete it and the writing will be just as it should be.

Mark Twain

Here is a lesson in creative writing. First rule: Do not use semicolons. They are transvestite hermaphrodites representing absolutely nothing. All they do is show you’ve been to college.

Kurt Vonnegut

If you want to be a writer, you must do two things above all others: read a lot and write a lot.

Stephen king

Cut out all these exclamation points. An exclamation point is like laughing at your own joke.

F. Scott Fitzgerald

Keep your exclamation points under control. You are allowed no more than two or three per 100,000 words of prose.

Elmore Leonard

 If it sounds like writing … rewrite it.

Elmore Leonard

I believe the road to hell is paved with adverbs, and I will shout it from the rooftops.

Stephen King

Avoid adverbs, especially after “he said” and “she said.” “While to write adverbs is human, to write ‘he said’ or ‘she said’ is divine.

Stephen King

Two of the ‘wow’ words attached to the exemplar descriptive writing I have been referencing were Arcadian and obfuscation. The first is a silly recommendation. The second is more problematic: obfuscation describes, ironically, the result of an overuse of wow words, but it is an excellent word when used in more discursive [rather than descriptive] writing. And that is the crux. Wow words do not exist in a vacuum and context is everything.

My point here is that vocabulary is obviously an important tool for any writer. And as English teachers we should be exploring and expanding this for all students, in creative and precise contexts, but also in others’ writing, and thus by reading this: advice so many of the above authors make as well when talking about what makes a good writer.

My reading and then writing has been heavily influenced by American authors: firstly Earnest Hemingway when I was a teenager, and much later Raymond Carver – both demonstrating the power of simplicity. Raymond Chandler is also an excellent model, and I came to him through teaching The Big Sleep at A level.

Cormac McCarthy is the other. He is one of the greatest writers of our time, and perhaps the greatest when it comes to his use of language; his phenomenal vocabulary and how he uses this with such a unique felicity.

My final comment is that though I have stressed the importance of reading in helping us all to become good writers, I will close on my fundamental, over-riding ethos as a teacher of writing: it is treating students as writers and helping them to write as writers. It is not as exam fodder. It is not as wow-worshippers. It is not as word strategists.

A final observation: had I been aware of wow words in February 2015, I might have been inclined to name this new site after the title of this posting – http://www.www.wordpress [don’t try – it isn’t a link!]

[There is also this good related article from The Guardian in June, 2015, here].


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