There’s always something new to learn about the craft of writing. Last week I encountered the word phatism while reading a blog by John Yeoman. I looked it up in the dictionary but couldn’t find it—not even in the urban slang dictionary—but I think it’s an appropriate word. Yeoman described a phatism as a type of cliché that is “an empty sound or expression.” His example is the word “nice,” which isn’t particularly descriptive. It can mean nothing or it can mean anything, e.g., a “nice” sunrise or “nice” death. He wrote that copy editors loathe “nice.”
Yeoman mentioned that Agatha Christie used “nice” in her stories to trick readers just before a tragic event occurred. When she clustered words like “sweet” and “pleasant” with “nice,” catastrophe was imminent.
He thought phatisms served only one useful purpose--as placeholders. If you’re stuck for the correct word while writing, drop in “nice” or a similar vague word and then move on. In the editing stage use the find function and replace the phatism with a better word or delete it.
The second new-to-me concept I ran across was white space. I knew that white space was important in screenplays and graphic design but didn’t know that short story and novel writers use it as a tool, too. For anyone unfamiliar with this term, white space is the blank between characters, lines and paragraphs.
White space can:
- Give the eye a break when reading blocks of dense text.
- Set off a main point. Since the absence of content attracts the eye, sentences closest to the white space are more easily remembered. Otherwise, a reader may skim a long paragraph.
- Allow the reader to better absorb what is written and increase comprehension.
- Create rhythm by varying the amount of text between chapters or paragraphs.
Using white space is a choice. A writer may choose to write long paragraphs in a formal, thoughtful narrative and then switch to short, choppy sentences to quicken the pace during action scenes. Comedy writers use short sentences because it provides quick movement.
One time, DeMarinis was inspired to write a short story that was a parody of a romance novel in the form of a villanelle. (Again, I had to look the word up in the dictionary but this time found it.) A villanelle is a highly structured nineteen-line poem with alternately repeating first and third lines and using only two rhymes throughout. One famous villanelle is “Do Not Go Gentle into That Good Night” by Dylan Thomas. (Link to poem: http://www.poets.org/viewmedia.php/prmMID/15377)
DeMarinis wrote his short story consisting of nineteen paragraphs with each paragraph corresponding to a line in a villanelle. He had to fudge a little to stay true to the form since the first and third paragraphs needed to repeat at the end.
What did you learn last week?
John Yeoman’s blog:
Suzannah Windsor Freeman’s post about white space: http://writeitsideways.com/how-and-when-to-use-white-space-in-writing/