Creative use of Language

Creative writing is as much about playing games as anything else is. We play games with words and meanings. If we are into sci-fi, we may even invent our own languages and personal dictionaries. But we do need to ensure that our readers can understand our writing. For this, a good dictionary is indispensable, even if we excel at language. As I have said, writing is lonely and there are times when we need certainty. Getting help from a like-minded compiler is very, very reassuring. So invest in the biggest single-volume dictionary you can afford – and carry in one hand – or ask one of your friends to buy you one as a birthday present. Shelve it beside your desk. ‘Spell-check’ gets it wrong too, sometimes.

If we want to communicate effectively, it helps if other people know exactly what we mean, so hopefully we steer clear of heavy or obscure language.

Idiom – if you’re not sure what that means, look it up in your dictionary – is an interesting case in point. If I wrote, ‘The lady asked if I was pulling her leg, and that I had better leave her alone or she would sock it to me’, an editor unfamiliar with that idiom might query, ‘Pulling whose leg? Putting the sock on the leg?’ To take other examples: ‘Hang on a sec’ might raise the question, ‘What is a sec, and why is he hanging onto it?’ If you write, ‘Betty’s going to give Bert stick when she catches up with ‘im’ you are likely to find that, for an American translation, someone will have prefaced ‘stick’ with an indefinite article.

Our idioms, with which we feel so entirely comfortable, are so meshed with everyday language, that it can be hard to notice when readers with different social references find them incomprehensible. Idioms are not self-explanatory, so in the long run it might be easier to find some other way to express the same point.


Similarly, humour can be a challenge, as what one nation finds amusing may well be insulting in a different cultural setting. For example, saying, ‘I have my best knickers on, just in case I get run over by a bus’ might be funny in Edinburgh, UK or deepest Dorset, but probably would not work in Bremen, Germany. Beware of putting a ‘family joke’ into a book, unless we can explain the background, seamlessly making that relevant and funny to any reader. We had best assume throughout the creative process, that we would like everyone to understand what we are writing about. An uncompromising message can be very important, but finding ways to stay committed to your creative style and voice in ways that do not alienate or confuse readers, is a large part of what makes writing saleable.

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