Please contact E. B. Davis at for information on guest blogs and interviews. Interviews for May: (5/4) Linda Norlander, (5/11) Connie Berry, (5/18) Mary Keliikoa, (5/22) Annette Dashofy, and (5/25) Rosalie Spielman.

Tuesday, May 21, 2013

Phatism, White Space, and Villanelles. Oh My!

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.

My third enlightened moment came while reading The Art & Craft of the Short Story. Author Rick DeMarinis wrote a section on short stories that are patterned after forms such as a fairy tale, inventory list, conversation, or diary.  

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:

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:


Jim Jackson said...

I have a Word document titled “Edits before Finalizing Manuscript,” which I use to remind me of all the things I need to correct before I consider the manuscript done.

Eliminating my personal phatisms is included in the last section, (all the major edits are done; I’m down to wordsmithing—in its positive sense). I think of them as namby-pamby words to eliminate or strengthen.

A few of my words to replace include poor (unless it describes a level of poverty), just, very and quite.

~ Jim

Jenny said...

I tried a handy tool that may be similar to "Edits before Finalizing Manuscript" called Pro Writing Aid. And it's free! I think it's closer to AutoCrit and it's free!

Now I have some work to do ... since it only points out the mistakes.

E. B. Davis said...

Agatha Christie taught me the word "unctuous." I have yet to use it in one of my stories, but I hope to use it someday.

I haven't heard of phatism, but I understand the concept. In a script when I'm stuck or know I haven't pinned down what I need to say, I color the font red in that area so I don't forget to go back and rework that paragraph or sentence.

Robert Parker taught me about white space. His dialogue was incomparable, Spenser's back and forth with Susan emphasizing the strength of their relationship, but it also served to give him great white space that moved his stories forward.

This week, Caroline Graham is teaching me new vocabulary words. Furbelow--the flounce of a woman's skirt. I didn't know there was a word that described this motion! Intransigence--inflexibility. Nope, I would have just said inflexible. Simplistic me.

Kara Cerise said...

What a smart idea to create a personalized reminder of things you need to correct in a manuscript, Jim. I have a mental list of phatisms to replace but should write them down.

Kara Cerise said...

Thank you, Jenny, for mentioning Pro Writing Aid. I like the price.

Best of luck editing!

Kara Cerise said...

E.B., I agree that Robert Parker wrote top-notch dialogue. I hadn’t considered the way he used white space to move the story forward. Thank you for pointing that out. Now, I want to read and study the dialogue between Spenser and Susan.

I also enjoy learning new words while I’m reading for pleasure. I hope you find a way to write “unctuous” in a story.

Warren Bull said...

One of the reviewers of MURDER MANHATTAN STYLE suggested that I needed more "mythic distance." I didn't know what that meant. A friend explained that as a writer I should not let readers "see me sweat" over the work.

Kara Cerise said...

I hadn't heard of the phrase "mystic distance," Warren. Perhaps it also refers to the separation between the writer and audience or writer and story?

Gloria Alden said...

Kara, quite an interesting topic and with a word I'd never heard of. I'm enjoying all the comments you're getting, too.

Nice is such a bland word very much overused and often used so one doesn't have to say what one really thinks such as in response to a question, "Do you like my new hairdo?" It's kinder to say "It's nice," than saying I think it's awful.

As far as Warren's "mystic distance" I often hear the voice of a writer I know in his/her work. It doesn't bother me at all.

Linda Rodriguez said...

Great blog, Kara! I'd never have thought of structuring a short story after a villanelle--and I'm a poet!

Yes, Jim! "Just." I always have to search for that and a few other words that I've learned are my stupid crutches in every final draft. *sigh*

carla said...

thanks for introducing me to the term phatism. LOVE IT.

Kara Cerise said...

I like your example of a new haircut, Gloria. I’m somewhat suspicious when someone tells me my new dress or hair style is “nice.” It’s a good reminder that I need to be careful of bland word choice.

Kara Cerise said...

Linda, I thought DeMarinis was clever to structure a short story after a villanelle. It couldn’t have been an easy thing to do.

Kara Cerise said...

I like “phatism,” too, Carla. It was new to me and I had to read it twice because I thought there was a typo.