Good writers avoid common collocations and tired clichés, like Tom Waits
Tom Waits has a way with words, and even though he writes songs, he should inspire writers and authors. His words are memorable for one very simple reason.
Tom Waits never uses a common collocation, and instead, surprises and sometimes shocks with his choice of word combinations.
There are too many memorable lines by Waits, so I won’t list them here. Enough to say that if he were writing about a Ferrari, it would never be red. It would be rusted metallic purple or lime green.
In his line about a kiss, in Black Market Baby, many writers may have collocated honey, sugar or some other kind of sweetness, but amnesia is a complete surprise, and because of this, very memorable. It is also highly descriptive and makes one think about the deeper meaning behind these few words.
It is also highly descriptive and makes one think about the deeper meaning behind these few words.
My favourite author, Douglas Adam, also used irregular and unpredictable collocations, such as, “the ships hung in the sky in much the same way that bricks don’t.”
Without going into a long list of memorable quotes, these two are enough to make the point that writers often reach for the common, all too often used, and unsurprising collocations, which worse, can also be tired clichés.
The art of great writing is to give a reader a little blow of unpredictability
If I stay with spaceships and kisses, perhaps examples of unpredictability might work like this.
The ship was so
fast rapid swift fleet that it passed overtook hurtled ahead of itself five six times on its way to Mars Uranus.
A simplistic example, but apart from the choice of verbs, the number six is rarely used, along with four and eleven, and Uranus sounds like a much more mysterious destination than Mars.
waited lingered ripened for his kiss, her lips trembled quivered shimmered and shivered with anticipation anxiety unease.
Okay, so not the two best lines I have ever written, but the process is clear from these two examples.
Especially during the first editing stage of a novel, look for word combinations that are far too predictable and then search for better, and more descriptive, or even surprising, vocabulary combinations.
If you need inspiration while editing, you could do worse than listen to some songs by Tom Waits.
More reading: 350 Other Words For Said For Your Dialogue Writing
I started my working life as a lithographer and then spent over 30 years in the printing and publishing business.
Originally from Australia, I moved to Switzerland 20 years ago. My days are spent teaching English, writing and wrestling with technology while enjoying my glorious view of the Alps.
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