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Whistle While You Work

Men at work by hugovk, on Flickr
Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-Share Alike 2.0 Generic License  by  hugovk 

In my two experiences with Weekend Warrior — the contest on Codex Writers where participants are given prompts for five weeks and have approximately 54 hours to write a 750-word flash piece inspired by one of the prompts — I’ve received a good bit of very terse feedback, one particular recurring phrase of which I had taken to be a negative, because I honestly had no idea what it meant, but it sounded bad. Weekend Warrior critiques are just a few words, with no space or time for in-depth commentary.

<digression> From a reader’s perspective, it may sound like I’m completely obsessed with Weekend Warrior and with critiques and that I spend all my waking time dwelling on it. I don’t. This blog is about writing, so if something occurs to me that clarifies my writing or reading patterns, I may write about it. But there are many other things that occupy my time, and I have spent no more time dwelling on Weekend Warrior or the critiques therefrom than any of you have spent worrying about whether Kim Kardashian . . . uh, I have nowhere to go after that, because I couldn’t care less. But that’s my point. I go weeks without thinking about it, and then a little whisper in the recesses of my frontal lobe surfaces: “‘Workmanlike language’: what does that even mean?” So bear with me, and please don’t go away with the impression that I’m obsessed. :) Now, back to my blog post, already in progress.</digression>

So, the other day, I saw the same phrase used on some forum . . . and it was quite obviously a compliment. So I asked a friend of mine, Terra LeMay, who recently acquired an agent for her novel and for whom I could not be more excited, “What does ‘workmanlike language’ mean to you?” I explained in what contexts I’d heard it.

Her answer not only surprised me, but has given me quite a bit of insight to my own writing and why I inexplicably don’t like some stories / books that are otherwise well-written.

‘Workmanlike language’ basically means that the words that tell the story don’t stand out. Don’t draw attention to themselves. There are no turns of phrase that make you stop reading and say, “Wow! That was beautiful!” and then read it again and again, with the words rolling off your (figurative or literal) tongue. In other words, to quote William Shakespeare out of context, “The play’s the thing.” (Actually, quoting Shakespeare, here, who is quite well-known for his beautiful, often lyrical and surprising turns of phrase was probably not a good choice. Nevertheless, I’m going to go with it.). The words stay out of the way, letting the story — the millieu, ideas, characters, and events — be the star.

And it dawned on me: this is not a negative remark (although it’s possible some people might have meant it that way): it’s positive, for me.

Because this is what I strive to do. It is also what I look for in the things I read.

My feeling about writing and reading is that if you’re paying attention to the words, you’re not giving enough attention to what they’re saying. My characters don’t enunciate with mellifluous melismatic ease . . . they talk. Or perhaps speak.

Now, I can look back on some very good books that . . . I’ve just been kind of ‘meh’ about. Because, as Gloria Estéfan might say, “the words get in the way.”

I like some of them in spite of the flowery language (and I don’t mean ‘flowery’ as an insult, much in the same way that ‘workmanlike’ is not an insult now that I know what it means) because they have the other elements that I want in equal measure. So I can read a novel or story with flowery, expressive language that draws attention to itself, but as long as the story itself holds my interest, I’m fine. I might even pause over a particularly well-put-together sentence and marvel at it and wish I’d written it.

A recent example is Vladimir Nabokov’s Invitation to a Beheading, which I read as part of a reading group I belong to. Most everyone else seemed to like it, but it just left me high and dry. They were all talking about the beautiful, poetic language while I was saying, “All the absurd stuff lost me.”1 I was focusing on the story; they were focusing on the language, and the stuff behind the language.

It also dawns on me as I type this blog post that this very issue is probably the problem I have with most poetry. In poetry, the words are key, and the beautiful turn of phrase is the point.

Since we’re already talking about Shakespeare, compare these two side-by-side excerpts from Hamlet, Act III, scene 1, in which Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are telling Claudius, Gertrude, Polonius, and Ophelia about their encounter with Hamlet:

GUILDENSTERN
Nor do we find him forward to be sounded
But with a crafty madness keeps aloof
When we would bring him on to some confession
Of his true state.
“And he’s not exactly eager to be interrogated. He’s very sly and dances around our questions when we try to get him to talk about how he feels,” Guildenstern said.
GERTRUDE
                    Did he receive you well?
“Did he treat you well when you saw him?” asked Gertrude.

[Note: Text on left is public domain. The modern English explication on the right is taken from the No Fear Shakespeare website and used entirely without permission, but I’m pretty sure it falls under fair use. I merely added the quotes and attribution, like you’d see in dialogue in a novel.]

Shakespeare’s original language is beautiful. It’s in iambic pentameter, it rhymes, and each word is carefully chosen to convey meaning and still remain faithful to the form. The right-hand text is ‘workmanlike prose.’ It’s more like what I would write in a story, and far closer to what I would rather read. The meaning is conveyed, but while I might quote Shakespeare, I will only remember the meaning conveyed by the words on the right.

Of course, certain caveats apply here: Shakespeare was writing a play in a strict form requiring rhyme and meter and a certain flair for a turn of phase. He even made words up when existing ones didn’t suffice. But if I were reading a modern adaptation of Hamlet in the form of a novel, I would expect to see language much more consistent with what’s on the right. Because people actually speak that way. The words and their arrangement don’t obfuscate what is being said. The prose form doesn’t require that normal sentence structure be subverted to fit a rhyme or meter.

So I guess what I’m trying to get around to saying2 is this: each individual writer (and reader) uses language that not only makes them comfortable, but excites them and is appropriate for the work itself.

And for me, that is often “workmanlike language.” :)


  1. The very point at which it lost me was when his wife came to visit him in prison and brought all the household belongings, members of her family, the cat, etc, and spent the entire time talking to everyone but him, as he basically cowered in his crowded cell speaking to no one. I did get that there were a number of metaphors and a lot of symbolism going on, but it was at that point that I just stopped caring and said, ‘This is too far out in Absurdland for me to even see the way home.’
  2. I often have a point, and I sometimes actually get around to making it. :)

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