Philosophy of Writing – 3 – Word Salad

Posted on July 27, 2011 by


When I gg'ed "word salad" images, this came up. I don't know what it is, but I like it.

When I gg’ed “word salad” images, this came up. I don’t know what it is, but I like it.

I first heard the term “word salad” in a symbolic logic course. My professor used it to describe a certain type of philosophical discourse: the imprecise, the grandiloquent, and most importantly, the self-defeating or the meaningless. It’s the kind of philosophy that gets parodied — the kind that makes people think my BA is in pontification.

In English Lit. class, it refers to prose that seems meaningful but that, on closer inspection, fails to refer to anything in particular. It’s responsible for woolly thinking, fuzzy writing, bloated wordcounts, and vast fields of purple prose.

Word salad inevitably comes about because English words gather multiple meanings and connotations during their lifespans. Writers (bless our mad little hearts) tend to focus on the connotations and emotions engendered by a word at the expense of the word’s literal meaning:

1. “appearing before his very eyes” — Instead of his ears, presumably?
2.  “A stabbing sense of misery embraced her.” — The word “embrace” carries positive connotations. It also suggests a uniform external influence. Misery is internal, and if “stabbing”, not uniform.
3. “a sobbing moan” — A moan is a specific kind of sound: low in pitch, round in timbre, and continuous. When a person sobs, they produce intervals of sound. There is no such thing as a “sobbing moan”, but most people moan whilst sobbing.
4. “He spoke with simple frankness.” — To be frank is to be truthful and direct; it is therefore impossible to speak with frankness that is not simple.
5. “[Heroine] was cold, as if she’d sat upon a block of ice.” — Do you suppose she’d be wet if she were thrown into a river?
6. “Without love there can be no life, because it is the essence of every sentient being.” — This seems very grand, but what does it mean? It seems to say that the capacity to love is what divides sentient beings from simpler creatures. Are psychopaths not sentient, then?

You might have noticed that there are three kinds of word salad expressed in the examples: repetitive, meaningless, and self-contradictory. If you didn’t, please have a quick look at the examples again. Numbers (2) and (3) are self-contradictory, numbers (1), (4), and (5) repetitive, and number (6) meaningless.

Self-contradictory phrases ignore the precise meanings of words in favour of their most common contexts and the feelings they evoke. When you write “sobbing moan”, you might very well know the meanings of “sob” and “moan” — but the combination appeals to you because your character is desperately sad and on the verge of breaking down. You might have seen it used before in this context, and never really examined it more closely.

Meaningless phrases will often come about by woolly thinking; the author has used words precisely, but he’s used them to describe a vague or faulty idea. These are the most difficult to fix.

Repetitiveness is symptomatic of carelessness. Either the author doesn’t care to choose one way of describing something, or the author thinks her audience is stupid and won’t understand what she means unless she goes into excruciating detail.

You can do a few things to prevent and fix word salads. First, if you find yourself thinking “Huh?” when you read a sentence, don’t skip it! Go back and make sure it’s okay. Second, keep a dictionary to hand. If a word comes to mind and you can’t define it with confidence, look it up. Third, reread every single paragraph you write before moving on to the next one. And most importantly, get into the habit of trimming as you go along. If something doesn’t sound exactly as it should — too wordy, not precise, not beautiful, choppy, needlessly confusing — then fix it, for heaven’s sake.

But sometimes fiction can be wordy (and not a little purple) without containing obvious errors. You’ve got meaningful prose — it’s just not concise. What do you do?

“Syntax” is a set of rules about the ordering and structure of words in a language. In linguistics, sentences are said to be composed of “phrases”. For example, the sentence, “I truly loved my wife,” could be broken down like this:

NP -> VP -> NP

NP = noun phrase, “I”
VP = verb phrase, “truly loved”
NP = noun phrase, “my wife”

Syntax is often expressed in trees to show the phrases within phrases.

Syntax Tree

You need to have a feel for syntax when you edit fiction for conciseness. Luckily for you, you’re already an expert! You know most of the rules. You know, for example, that “the red big balloon” sounds weird, or that “dog bites man” has a very different meaning to “man bites dog”.

The tricky part is that you don’t have those rules at your fingertips. You use them unconsciously, for the most part. It’s not a huge problem. You know the parts of speech, duh — but maybe you’re not certain what to cut out when you edit.


Exercise 1: Hack & Slash

I can take 15 words out of the sentence below without damaging its basic structure.

Before she could move, a light from behind surrounded her; tiny pinpricks of rainbow-coloured energy pulsated with incredible beauty.

Here’s what I get after removing those words:

Light surrounded her; pinpricks pulsated.

If I remove anything else, the sentence breaks. It becomes structurally unsound. Everything I took away detailed and expanded on the ideas that formed the basic structure of the sentence.

Your mission is to do the same thing to the following paragraph. (Keep in mind that I’m not interested in preserving meaning — only structure.)

I wasted away like a browning leaf when her gaze fluttered gently over my face. The energy of the earth sustained me so that I didn’t fall senseless to her feet; the energy of the sky drew me up towards the heavens. What was I but a crooked tree, old and useless, not worthy of her benevolent attention? I could not bear to be in her presence a single minute longer. Her eyes bored into me gently. I shuddered involuntarily — my limbs shook, like a victim of epilepsy.

Comment with your answers, please, and I’ll mark them for you. Each word correctly left in or taken out is a point. The maximum mark is therefore 89.

Good luck!


I got you to do that because I wanted you to see just how much you can take out without hurting the essential skeleton of sentences. Let’s get one thing straight, though: writing is about choosing the best words for the job. Simple and complex prose can both be beautiful.

I like to differentiate between “simple” and “elegant”. “Simple” is a factual description and doesn’t carry any judgment. When I refer to writing as”elegant”, I mean, “The author has chosen words carefully. This prose has everything it needs, but not too much.” Using that definition, messy prose can be elegant — because in some cases, prose needs to be messy to do the job the author needs it to do.

Good writing can be simple but it must be elegant.

We love pretty. Love it. Why say, “it rained” when you can rhapsodise about whispering droplets and discuss how precipitation is comparable to the delicate saline that squeezes from the highly sensitised tear ducts of one’s heroine?

Well, because what you think is pretty is often not pretty. It’s often entirely awkward: inappropriate for character voice, inappropriate to genre, melodramatic, wordy. It’s an upsetting cross to bear, but you have to cut this stuff out of your work. If you write a sentence because you want people to think you’re a good writer — if you write it to be pretty, in other words — it looks like you’re trying to show off. Make certain you’re actually showing off. If it falls flat, if your writing is not elegant, the reader will notice. It looks like pretention, even if it isn’t.

Melodrama, by the bye, is your worst frenemy. You let it in the door thinking it’s just really intense drama — after all, this scene is so important — but your audience can’t take you seriously. Death knell. And then, ugh, all the legit drama that should rightfully evoke genuine emotion starts to look like melodrama. Your entire manuscript gets a black mark.

There isn’t an easy way to avoid these problems; they happen to every writer. You know why? Because one reader’s “awkward” is another’s “beautiful”. Every reader is different. Everyone prefers a different style. Some people hate David Foster Wallace; some people think he’s prodigious. Funny trivia: I can’t stand Dickens. His style is just too cluttered. I recall reading one of his smaller volumes — Pickwick Papers, I think it was — and finding a page occupied by a single sentence, some 20 or 30 clauses long. I had to stop reading; I was grinding my teeth.

The best thing you can do is pay attention. You can also try to follow some (very general and imperfect) guidelines:

1. Avoid strings of adjectives or adverbs. Keep in mind that numbers and basic colours are adjectives, and that they’re often entirely unnecessary to a narrative. Ask yourself if you really need the reader to know exactly how many people were in that room.
2. Avoid qualifiers like “very”, “almost”, “kind of”, and “possibly” when you can. (This is something I have trouble with.)
3. Vary the structure of your sentences. Don’t just vary their lengths; mix up their innards.
4. Avoid the passive voice, but don’t get fanatical. If you need it, you need it.
5. Write what your character would say if she were a real person, not what you would like to say in that situation. Characters don’t make good megaphones, and if that’s all they are — well, write an essay. (For a closer look at this, see my post about voice, “Voice & Stanislavsky’s Systems”.)
6. Dependent clauses are groups of words that form a single unit, but that cannot stand alone as a sentence. In the sentence, “On Saturday, the repairman is coming to fix my fridge,” the words “on Saturday” form a dependent clause. Try to limit the number of dependent clauses in a sentence.
7. Dialogue tags should be as simple as possible. 95% of the time, your dialogue alone should tell the reader everything he needs to know.
8. If the same content word appears twice in the same paragraph, consider deleting one of the instances. (Content words are nouns, verbs, adjectives, and adverbs.) Some you may have to repeat — a name is a good example of this — but a nice rule of thumb is that the more obscure a word is, the more careful you have to be.


Exercise 2: The Bloodening

Take a page of an awful book and cut its wordcount by half. Make a list of the cuts; notice why you made changes. Don’t worry about beautifying the text beyond cutting. Don’t worry if you have to do minor shuffling to make it work.

Taking the butcher knife to bad fiction is easier — and more telling — than practicing on your own work. We’ll come back to the awful book soon enough, and you’ll see why I keep a stack of them around the house.

Let me know how it went!


Exercise 3: Twitter takes Over the World Words

Make this sentence from Dickens’ Barnaby Rudge tweet length, without any regard for the preservation of structure or content whatsoever:

To none of these interrogatories, whereof every one was more pathetically delivered than the last, did Mrs Varden answer one word: but Miggs, not at all abashed by this circumstance, turned to the small boy in attendance–her eldest nephew–son of her own married sister–born in Golden Lion Court, number twenty-sivin, and bred in the very shadow of the second bell-handle on the right-hand door-post–and with a plentiful use of her pocket-handkerchief, addressed herself to him: requesting that on his return home he would console his parents for the loss of her, his aunt, by delivering to them a faithful statement of his having left her in the bosom of that family, with which, as his aforesaid parents well knew, her best affections were incorporated; that he would remind them that nothing less than her imperious sense of duty, and devoted attachment to her old master and missis, likewise Miss Dolly and young Mr Joe, should ever have induced her to decline that pressing invitation which they, his parents, had, as he could testify, given her, to lodge and board with them, free of all cost and charge, for evermore; lastly, that he would help her with her box upstairs, and then repair straight home, bearing her blessing and her strong injunctions to mingle in his prayers a supplication that he might in course of time grow up a locksmith, or a Mr Joe, and have Mrs Vardens and Miss Dollys for his relations and friends.