Listen To Tom Waits For Your Writing Inspiration

Tom Waits writing style

Tom Waits’ writing, like all good writers, avoids common collocations and tired clichés.

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.

He never uses a common collocation. Instead, he surprises and sometimes shocks with his choice of word combinations.

Tom Waits writing and words

There are too many memorable lines by Waits, so I won’t list them here.

It is enough to say that if you imagine Tom Waits 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, there’s amnesia in her kiss, is a complete surprise, and because of this, it is very memorable.

It is also highly descriptive and makes one think about the deeper meaning behind these few words.


Douglas Adams

My favorite author, Douglas Adam, also used irregular and unpredictable collocations.

You might recall, “the ships hung in the sky in much the same way that bricks don’t.”

I won’t go into a long list of memorable quotes. But these two are enough to make the point.

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 the 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.

As she 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.

It’s especially true during the first editing stage of a novel.

Look for word combinations that are far too predictable and then search for better, 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.


Related Reading: Palindromes Are Fun, Whichever Way You Look At Them

2 thoughts on “Listen To Tom Waits For Your Writing Inspiration”

  1. This is great advice and yes, Tom Waits’ lyrics are often surprising and even graphic; thereby memorable.

    I attended a small workshop run by the contemporary British poet, Simon Armitage about three years ago and the one piece of advice, of many, I remember well that he offered was his suggestion that you don’t need to use sophisticated words or language to stand out; in fact better to use every day commonly used words, but, he proposed that to throw in an unusual or unexpected word (or collocation) could help to make a piece stand out in the memory.

  2. Yes agreed. Very interesting. And I think I unwittingly followed this train of thought when writing my book #SpeedBumpHimalayas.
    “I’d hidden rhat minor piece of information somewhere behind my brain muzzle, but now it flew out like a chicken being chased by a slavering Panther.”

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