Self-Editing: Tactics for Taming Weak Wording

Most words and phrases that people recommend avoiding earn this distinction because they bloat word counts and (possibly) make editors despair.

Among the more specific writing suggestions that exist,[*] writers often are advised to avoid certain words and phrases to improve their work’s readability. However talented we are as wordsmiths, I suspect most of us find ourselves deleting questionable phrasing from our early drafts—myself included. Part of becoming a better writer involves learning how to self-edit one’s verbal excesses. I’ve identified categories of weak wording, strategies for dealing with them, and a few reasons why we might use them anyway.

Filler Words

Most words and phrases that people recommend avoiding earn this distinction because they bloat word counts and (possibly) make editors despair. I call them fillers because they add text without value. For example, “a variety of reasons” could instead be “various reasons” or “assorted reasons”. Other offenders include redundancies such as “joint consensus” when “consensus” suffices. At fault here is wordiness. Why do style manuals hate wordiness? Because it makes reading dull. Reading pages of “in order to”, “at this point”, “very”, and their boring brethren makes it difficult to stay focused on the topic. Style manuals recommend concise writing for a reason.[†]

Cliches bore the kitty.
The cat isn’t yawning because she’s tired; she’s bored by filler words and clichés.

Overused and Imprecise Wording

Some words and phrases don’t bear repeating because their overuse dilutes their impact. Clichés typically belong in this category, as does the word “awesome”.[‡] Other words lack precision. “If someone is “very” smart, do we mean they are intelligent or a genius? How much is “a lot”? Be specific (eg, seven) or generalize concisely (eg, numerous). Likewise, words like “stuff” and “things” are vague; they can be replaced with “belongings” or a description of said things (clothes, cars, bottle cap collections…).

Adjectives, Adverbs, and the Passive Voice

Adjectives, adverbs, and the passive voice constitute an interesting group because they permit wordiness (and perhaps imprecision) yet remain vital in other contexts (more on that later). Because they are useful, we sometimes overuse them. Some sentences become more concise and/or gain immediacy when we replace an adverbial or adjectival phrase (eg, “public disgrace”) with a more descriptive verb or noun (“scandal”), respectively. “She stomped” has greater impact than “She walked loudly and angrily” because we switched from telling to showing. Sentences written in the passive voice (“I was running”) similarly benefit when revised to an active verb (“I ran”). We also need to consider whether some adjectives or adverbs can be dispensed with altogether.  If the character’s quietness in “She walks quietly down the hall” isn’t being described for a reason (ie, to show that she’s being considerate of others who are asleep), this adverb should be removed.

gavel, weak wording
Objection, your Honor! Weak wording appears in dialogue to simulate natural speech!

Objections: Appropriate Uses and Other Reasons

Before I discuss strategies for clearing verbal clutter away, I want to address why we still use items from these categories. As soon as a person lists phrases or words that should be avoided, someone will cite cases where the word or phrase is permissible—even desirable!—to use. I find articles that suggest we delete all instances of certain words (like adverbs) too prescriptive. My goal is to make it easier to revise occurrences of weak wording, not ban writing that works. If you find a way to make a cliché or the passive voice read well, use it. Here is an incomplete list of some reasons we use “avoidable” wording:

  • Dialogue. We use weak wording to simulate or report dialogue. [**]
  • Creative license. Robert Frost’s poem “Mending Wall” and its musing about neighborliness wouldn’t exist without a cliché . This poem reminds us that creative people know how to make trite phrases interesting again.
  • When fillers aren’t fillers. Sometimes “a lot” is an actual lot (as in realty). And we leave “in order to” alone when “order” means “sequence” because “Place the objects to collect a prize” is not equivalent to “Place the objects in order to collect a prize”.[††]
  • Using parts of speech when needed. It’s impractical to always avoid adjectives, adverbs, and the passive voice. We cannot replace every adjective and adverb with a more descriptive noun or verb. Also, the passive voice has clear usage cases (eg, general truths such as “Rules were made to be broken”), which you can read about here and here.
  • Repetition. Were I writing about a “scandal”, I may switch to “public disgrace” if I’ve used the word “scandal” so often it’s become boring!
Revision. Self-Editing: Tactics for Taming Weak Wording. Text by R. Gould
Get ready to revise.

Tactics to Minimize the Extraneous

Moving from understanding why weak wording makes writing less interesting to detecting its presence in our own work is difficult, something that requires practice. Some approaches and tactics help us find weak wording faster and edit thoughtfully. The following are my recommendations for self-editing:

  • Familiarity. Become familiar with words and phrases people suggest avoiding. Learn the specific reasons why a word or phrase should be revised and when it can be kept. Keep notes on items you want to avoid or review carefully when you write and revise. To get you started, I’ve listed several articles that discuss words to avoid at the end of the article (see “Read More”).
  • Identify problem areas. Check through your work (or ask someone else to do so) for weak wording, particularly repeat occurrences (“in order to” is one of mine). Keep your list of weak wording near where you write as a reminder.
  • Utilize software. Diana Urban advocates using the word processing “find” feature to locate and highlight weak wording, making it easier to  revise as needed. Building on her idea, I suggest using the same approach to check adverbs (most end in -ly) and adjectives (many use -ous, -ed or -ing suffixes); MS Word will let you search by suffixes. Built-in grammar software also highlights some egregious examples of weak wording.
  • Other resources. Use dictionaries (software, online or even manual) to confirm when phrase are redundant.  “Public opprobrium” is redundant by definition. Internet searches and other resources (Cliché Net) provide swift results about whether a questionable phrasing is cliché.

As a group defined by our words, we need to choose them with greater care. Self-editing, backed by research and technology, is one way we can improve what we write. If you’ve know of any strategies I haven’t mentioned, I’d love to learn about them. Feel free to share in the comment box below!

NOTES:

[*] I’ve done a roundup on this topic here.

[†] To clarify, concise writing refers to removing excess words; it is not a dictate to write shorter sentences. Both terse and lengthy sentences read better when every word in them matters.

[‡] I blame the 1980s.

[**] When using filler words or clichés in fictional dialogue, aim to give readers reality without the tedium. Writers usually condense reality: we don’t report every conversation verbatim. Even nonfiction writers insert ellipses when statements meander.

[††] Sure, you could say “Sequence the objects to win a prize” but you sound stuffy doing so.

READ MORE

Tameri Guide for Writer’s “Words and Phrases to Avoid

Freelance Writings “Ten Words to Avoid When Writing”

Diana Urban’s “43 Words You Should Cut from Your Writing Immediately”

Mark Nichol’s “50 Redundant Phrases to Avoid”

Thoughtco’s “Overused and Tired Words: A Tip for Effective Writing”

Pearl Luke’s “681 Clichés to Avoid in Your Creative Writing

Oxford Dictionaries’ “Avoiding Clichés

Reading in Company: The Advantages of Audiobooks

Reading ranks highly among solitary activities because its immersive nature, by design, tends to work best solo. As a bonus, no one comments on how odd it is that you are doing it alone. Yet reading can has its social side, as both book clubs and public readings prove. And that socialization can be the whole point of reading with others.

Reading Side by Side

For me, reading with another person present ideally occurs when we quietly read our own texts, perhaps sharing the occasional bits that amuse or interest us. For many years now, that person has been my spouse, although my tot has begun joining me of late. These joint reading sessions become irksome with too many interruptions, but they generally work out well.

The scenario alters, however, when both parties want to read the same book. This happens infrequently, since my spouse and I are rarely on the same page[*] with reading material. When it does occur, it’s not exactly polite to mention items of interest when the other party hasn’t hit the same point in a book. Matters become more complicated when there’s only one copy of book and I need to wait ages to read a book so that we can finally discuss it. Or worse, so I can read it. But there are workarounds.

Reading in Tandem

During a recent car trip, my spouse played an audio copy of a nonfiction book we both wanted to read.[†] All the difficulties of reading together disappeared: The narrator provided the pacing, preventing me from getting too far ahead. The audiobook format allowed us to hit pause and discuss the portions of the book we found interesting or disliked. And we continued our listening once we returned home.

I don’t typically listen to audiobooks, possibly because I find auditory accompaniment unnecessary since I figured out that “reading in your head” thing. That, or read-along-books put me off the idea.[‡] In fact, the last time I listened to an audiobook was…in a car ride with my spouse a few years ago.[§] To be honest, I don’t see myself listening to many audiobooks on my own, unless I have a reason to do so.[**]

It occurred to me, though, my spouse and I should consider listening to more books together and not just on tedious car rides. There are other books we’ve both wanted to read that might make a good evening’s listening, taking a page from friends of ours (another couple) who refer to their audiobook sessions as their literary salon. It’d be interesting to see if this becomes our new reading habit.

And who knows? We might even let the kid pick a book or two.

Happy reading!

Do you like to listen to audiobooks? Share why in the comment section below. Also, sign-up to the Sequence’s newsletter and keep current with the latest posts.

NOTES:

[*] When the pun is too good to delete.

[†] The book in question is The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up: The Japanese Art of Decluttering and Organizing by Marie Kondō. Because stuff accumulates.

[‡] As children, one of my brothers and I couldn’t hit the fast forward button fast enough during the song portions of a certain read-a-long book based on a movie. During the movie, the songs were okay, but they dragged without the accompanying visual entertainment. And the narrator read the book so sloooooooooooooow.

[§] Nuture Shock by Po Bronson and Ashley Merryman.

[**] Say, a few weeks ago when post-LASIK eye strain really put a crimp in my reading plans.

Coming of Age: Writing and the Continuity of Maturation

With the exception of bildungsroman tales, however, there is no reason the age must be adolescent or the struggles pubescent when we invoke the phrase “coming of age”. After all, rites of passage (eg, graduations, first jobs, parental loss) can occur at many different ages.

Literary Connections

In one of those fascinating moments of literary connection, I stumbled upon a quote that resonated with my own writing:[*]

…“all stories are coming-of-age stories”[†]

I discovered this statement, attributed to Antonya Nelson (author of Female Trouble), in a Q/A session between Karen Russell (author of Swamplandia and interviewer) and Robin Black (the interviewee) that served as an afterwords for Black’s short story collection, If I Loved You, I Would Tell You This: Stories. Russell references Nelson’s remark while discussing Black’s stories, which she notes explore with intensity how characters “come of age” at various points of their life. Concurring, Black relates her view that “coming-of-age” stories are works involving the change from innocence to experience, a process that continues to complicate one’s life. I found myself nodding, as my story-in-progress sprang to mind.

Coming of Ages

But what does a “coming of age” story represent? Usually, we refer to stories focusing on a young person in the process of achieving adulthood. Examples range from a teenager gaining understanding of her mother and harm seen in Nelson’s short story “Primum Non Nocere” to bildungsroman novels (eg, The History of Tom Jones by Henry Fielding), which focus on the development of a youth into maturity (eg, moral, psychological, intellectual).[‡] With the exception of bildungsroman tales,[§] however, there is no reason the age must be adolescent or the struggles pubescent when we invoke the phrase “coming of age”. After all, rites of passage (eg, graduations, first jobs, parental loss) occur at many different ages.

In my intergenerational story, three women’s lives change, with each experiencing a “coming of their particular age”. The youngest member, of course, experiences the more typical coming-of-age moment after leaving college. For her mother, her child’s nascent adulthood revives memories of her own mistakes at that age coupled with current worries that make it difficult for her to accept her child’s choices. And for the grandmother of the group? In addition to supporting the younger women in different ways, she looks toward her own next transition: addressing her own increasingly limited ability to care for herself.

Characterizing Maturation

One of the reasons I’ve enjoyed working with this story is that I felt the characters had opportunities to grow and learn, either by succeeding in their endeavors or by failing. When I read this interview and considered “coming of ages” in my writing, I knew I’d stumbled onto an underlying theme of my story: how families deal with their continuing evolution. In this regard, I felt more kinship with Black’s notion of moving from innocence to experience. Or, as I think of it, the ways in which we move from ignorance to knowledge, learning how to be ourselves at a certain age. It’s worth considering how characters of all ages “come of age”, how they mature through their experiences, when we write. Maturity, as Black notes, may not confer mastery but it makes for a richer tale.

NOTES:

[*] And they were all women authors!

[†] “A Reader’s Guide.” Black, Robin. Interview by Karen Russell. In: Black, Robin. If I Loved You, I Would Tell You This: Stories. New York, Random House, 2011.

[‡] Anne Boyd Rioux discusses female bildungsroman novels, including the contradictory nature of applying this term to female protagonists when such characters ultimately step into their expected social roles instead of pursuing their own dreams. Fortunately, she also lists several nineteenth century novels that flout these limitations here.

[§] By definition, a youth must be involved.

Soul Searching in Swing Time: Identity and Friendship*

Throughout the novel’s course (spent shuttling between the narrator’s upbringing with Tracey and her later career), Smith’s characters act as foils for each other in ways that make us question identity.

In Zadie Smith’s novel Swing Time, the unnamed narrator finds herself with time for self-reflection following a scandal that leads to public ignominy and unemployment. The scandal itself, however, is the least interesting part of this novel that travels between time and place while the narrator comes to terms with whom she is. Of course, much of whom the narrator might be depends on perspective, place, and the unevenness of memory. Smith’s novel, short on plot, delves into notions of identity, with emphasis on how class and race intertwine.

Family

Part of the narrator’s shifting identity stems from being the daughter of contrasting parents. Her mother, a black woman from Jamaica, is ambitious and intellectual, while her white, working class English father is the nurturer, determined to give his child a more stable, loving home than he had. The narrator wryly notes that her upbringing in the estates occurred “in the widening gap” between her parents who eventually divorce. She is neither parent’s child exactly, a sentiment that, in her father’s case, is exacerbated by meeting his white children from a previous relationship. To the narrator, they seem to be more genuinely his children than she is despite her father’s clear devotion. Smith gives her character unenviable insight: she could view this scenario from the opposite perspective but is unable to do so even as an adult. It’s this self-awareness and paralysis that make this character both frustrating and compelling.

Fiction and “Fitting In”

Throughout the novel’s course (spent shuttling between the narrator’s upbringing with Tracey and her later career), Smith’s characters act as foils for each other in ways that make us question identity. Shared skin color, for example, draws the narrator and Tracey (another biracial child) together when they meet in a dance class. Alike and different at once, both aspire to be dancers but only Tracey has the talent and drive for it. Yet Tracey longs for a loving father: she romanticizes her own abusive father’s absences—a tactic the narrator adopts when discussing her white siblings. Of course, such tactics and uncertain memory also complicate matters of identity. The epiphany that Smith’s narrator has about herself is inspired by watching Astaire’s performance in the movie Swing Time again. Yet, her realization (now wearing glasses and in good light) that she forgot Astaire performed in blackface disrupts this moment. And we are left to question: What is forgotten, what is untrue?

Laced with envy, the girls’ friendship is rocky. Sexuality, here, also affects identity and belonging. Although the narrator remains Tracey’s friend when the “nice” girls at school ostracize her for early sexual maturation, time spent together occurs only on Tracey’s terms. And Tracey sneers when the narrator socializes with the other girls, suggesting that the narrator’s presence among them is pretense. While playtime with nice girls like Lily Bingham offers the narrator relief from Tracey, it also invites alienation. Lily—white, middle class and “color blind”—is hurt when the narrator shows her a film scene featuring only black performers. The narrator doesn’t understand what Lily means by “we” when Lily claims “we” would be displeased if only black children were allowed to attend dance classes, both casually conferring and negating her friend’s black identity. This alienation is echoed in Africa. There, the black residents are impressed that “white women” like the narrator and her employer, Aimee (an actual white woman), can dance like black people do.

 

Book Review of Swing Time

 

Career: Celebrity and Erasure

Aimee, an Australian pop idol, is the least intriguing of the Smith’s characters, partly suffering from being too similar to a certain real-life pop idol and partly from her resemblance to a force of nature. To be fair, the latter also represents a comment on celebrity. Smith, however, permits Aimee to be personable, unafraid to cut through emotional morass, and more emotionally available to the narrator than her own mother. Possessing her mother’s social awareness, the narrator cannot ignore how her identity may be used to avoid charges of insensitivity when she raises concerns that Aimee’s “carnival” versions of  African dances could be interpreted as cultural appropriation. She’s ignored, of course: her work involves making Aimee’s life smoother, not disrupting it as she eventually does.

Cooperative or not, Smith narrator fails to inspire admiration the way other women in her life might. Overly apologetic, she lacks a dream to chase or a cause for which she fights, instead laboring in the shadows for others: her mother (recruited to participate in social marches), briefly Tracey (working as stagehand where she helps Tracey deal with costumes and love affairs), and Aimee, as her always on-call assistant. Over time, the narrator’s existence is at last subsumed: she cannot maintain her own social circle or romantic relationships while she services Aimee’s life. The resulting scandal, while not an attempt to quit, nonetheless betrays her discontent.

Shadows and Belonging

In the aftermath of the narrator’s scandal, watching Astaire’s dance with three shadows of himself causes the narrator to realize that she “experiences [herself] as a kind of shadow”. Dismissing these shadows, the question remains will she dance on as Astaire did? Swing Time is a thoughtful meditation on identity that meanders but never loses it way from this concern. Whatever path the narrator decides to take with the revelations about herself, however, lie with Tracey, her left-behind sister who happens to be the one person that evokes belonging.

Agonizing over Motivation: Why What an Antagonist Wants Matters

Insight into the motivations of some villains, however, can be the crucial difference between producing a caricature and a badly flawed individual.

Kurt Vonnegut’s rules for writing good short stories state that all characters “should want something, even if it is only a glass of water”.[*] Vonnegut’s levity aside, considering what fictional characters desire is useful because such explorations often reveals their underlying motivation, particularly when we write about antagonists. Antagonists represent individuals who oppose protagonists in some fashion. With exceptions such as monsters or forces of nature, most antagonists have reasons for their opposition. When writers understand what motivates their antagonist’s decisions to block the protagonist, we can root their subsequent actions within that frame of reference, thus giving their behavior an explicable context.

Villainous Pathos and Madness

When discussing antagonists, we often think of outright villains. It’s often easy to discover what motivates these villains to thwart a (presumably) plucky protagonist. The criminal masterminds and “take over the world types”, for example, have clear goals. Further insight into the motivations of some villains, however, can be the crucial difference between producing a caricature and a badly flawed individual. Consider J. K. Rowling’s Voldemort, whose snake-like appearance and (temporarily) undying nature makes him monstrous, more embodiment of evil than wicked wizard. As we discover in Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, Voldemort fears death and considers it to be a shameful weakness. Because he desires immortality, Voldemort chooses to undergo dangerous, immoral magical rituals.[†] Discovering that Voldemort’s behavior is motivated by his boyhood fears, initially stemming from the mistaken belief that his mother couldn’t be magical because she died and left him alone, both explains his reprehensible choices and humanizes him. Thus, learning Voldemort’s motivations provokes a twinge of pity for the person he might’ve become under different circumstances.

With other villains, gaining an understanding of what motivates these villains not only explains why these characters act as they do but also assists protagonists in overcoming the obstacles the villains set and/or defeat them. In Stephen King’s novel Misery, a seriously injured Paul Sheldon is held captive by Annie Wilkes. Understanding both Annie’s volatile mental status[‡] and her obsession with his Misery Chastain novels, he concocts a desperate plan to escape before she kills them both. Once he completes the Misery novel that Wilkes forced him to write, he ignites it instead of letting her read it. Caught off guard and desperate to save the book, she approaches close enough for Sheldon to attack and then lock himself away while he waits for the police.

chainsaw-agonizing-antagonist-motivation
Annie Wilkes’s short-term motivation involved murdering Paul Sheldon with a chainsaw, had she survived her injuries.

Law and Laughs: Adversaries and Friendly Obstructionists

Many antagonists, however, lack a villainous streak. Victor Hugo’s indefatigable policeman from Les Miserables spends his time enforcing the law he when isn’t attempting to recapture fugitive petty thief and protagonist, Jean Valjean. Javert’s relentless pursuit of Valjean seems excessive when considering the nature of crimes Valjean committed (bread theft). However, Javert is not interested in the unfairness of human law (or its sentencing) so much as he is passionate about enforcing it. He possesses a rigid worldview that despises challenges to authority and social order; he also does not believe lawbreakers like Valjean are capable of reform. Compelled to set affronts to order right, Javert also derives immense pleasure from doing so. Understanding Javert’s code explains both his conduct and prepares us for his fate. Although forced to flee Javert for years, Jean Valjean saves his long-time nemesis’s life—something which Javert finds incomprehensible. Once confident in his role in the world, Javert’s value system is upturned, prompting him to do something that otherwise would be unthinkable for such a man: he commits suicide.

In other instances, the non-villainous antagonist are less adversaries and more well-meaning sorts who nonetheless creates difficulties for protagonists. Agatha Christie has a beloved family member juggle the roles of benefactor and antagonist in her short story “Strange Jest.” Recently deceased Uncle Matthew hid a fortune for his two heirs to find. Despite their diligent searching, they find nothing. Frustrated, they agree to let Miss Marple assist them. Miss Marple seems to be an unlikely sleuth but soon proves to be adept at recognizing types of people and what motivates them. Not long after poking around the deceased’s home, Miss Marple forms the opinion that Matthew is like her own Uncle Henry, a bachelor unaccustomed to children but who enjoyed teasing them. This combination means that he’s likely to go a bit far with his little jokes. As such, the fortune he left is not the gold bullion he suggested burying in the yard instead of placing in a bank (a decoy, according to Miss M), but rare stamps on envelopes accompanying fake love letters that Uncle Matthew likely laughed over while penning—the sort of letters his nephew might’ve burned out of gentlemanly respect for his uncle’s privacy! Understanding that Uncle Matthew couldn’t resist one last joke, however, saved the inheritance.

Uncle Matthew's desire to have one last joke on his heirs results in digging up the back garden for hidden treasure. Naturally, it's found in the house.
Uncle Matthew’s desire to have one last joke on his heirs results in digging up the back garden for hidden treasure. Naturally, the inheritance is found in the house.
Part of creating a believable character can involve providing them with motivation (rational or not) for what they do. Motivation, working as a component of character behavior, makes characters more realistic. While gaining an understanding of what an antagonist wants might not make them beloved, it does make them relatable and occasionally worthy of readerly sympathy. After all, we all possess aspirations, even ignoble ones.

What motivates your favorite fictional characters? Share in the comment section below! Also, sign up to the Sequence newsletter to stay current with the latest posts.

NOTES:

[*] As mentioned in my post on writing advice, Vonnegut’s list represents specific writing advice that’s helpful to consider as needed.

[†] Undergoing these rituals also cause the radical alteration in his appearance from handsome man to snake-like, thus suggesting his wicked deeds in some way lessen his humanity.

[‡] During previous escape attempts, he discovers that she’s killed in the past (Annie likely has Munchhausen by Proxy syndrome) in addition to murdering a sheriff looking for him.

Destination Reading: Plotting What to Read for Travel

Among the many pleasures of reading is the journeys we take to distant places, some which we may only see in our imagination.[*] For the locales that we do get an opportunity to see, there’s excitement associated with traveling to places we’ve read about. And then, there’s a third category: visiting a place whose literature we haven’t much (or any) acquaintance with. Although many places on my “To Visit” list earned their spot because of books I’ve read, I’ve been inspired to travel for many reasons, ranging from a friend’s invitation to browsing the Internet and finding an amazing destination. In the spirit of an upcoming adventure to a place with which I have little real or literary familiarity, though, I decided to explore reading for travel and perhaps choose a few books to prepare me for that trip.

Research Reading

For many, travel reading often involves trip research. Spontaneity has its charm, but obtaining information about travel arrangements (transport and accommodations), climate, attire, special equipment needed,[†] visas and so forth is critical when traveling to distant locales. As far as travel and reading go, this category leans more toward organization than adventure but nonetheless should be on the research radar if a trip necessitates it. Internet sites (tourism, travel blogs, government sites, etc.) and travel guides seem to be the go-to resources for planning travel.

But thinking about research made me wonder about what people read to begin the process of learning more about a place and its culture. Finding books for a prospective trip (theoretically) isn’t difficult. I was curious, however, about how people decided to approach reading for upcoming travel. Did they read before they visited? As they traveled? How did they choose books? After being reminded to select my Internet terms with greater care,[‡] I discovered countless lists of books about [insert destination]—as easy as expected. But while they suggested books, they didn’t provide much guidance for how or what to choose.

Destination Reading: Plotting What to Read for Travel by R. E. Gould
While selecting books before travel is often encouraged, reading whilst biking is not.

Reading Before You Go and on the Go: Advice

So, I resumed my research. Intriguingly, the first thing I found was a contrarian article advising against reading before travel. Most sites I’d investigated assumed that readers would read before their travels (or bring books along) and slapped down a list of titles. Rachel Mann, a reader who’d been inclined but unable to delve into a few novels prior to a seven-city trip, argues that literary works provide artistic impressions of cities, portraying them “both better and worse than reality”. She likened the experience to the disappointment produced by viewing a movie having first read the book on which it was based. Mann further observed that such novels often ignore or gloss over the everyday experiences that travelers treasure.[§] Surely perusing works of nonfiction, particularly travel guides and travel memoirs, might provide a more realistic snapshot of a locale than some fictional works would? I also don’t think I found the differences between my experiences of visiting, say, London (even famous literary haunts) or further afield dismaying as compared to my reading. Perhaps it’s the effect of reading numerous works, set in different periods and places, about a specific country that avoided this result. However, it is worth considering the validity Mann’s claim that “having someone else’s experience” in mind could direct a traveler away from finding their own adventures.

Nonetheless, I can’t say Mann persuaded me: sometimes, a reading experience makes taking a trip worthwhile. Matt Hershberger’s article asserts that he became a traveler because he was a reader first. However, he agreed that visiting literary sites can be disappointing (to an extent, echoing Mann’s claim) because they can be touristy.[**] For him, properly engaging with the literature of a place he visits involves discussing literature with locals, something that facilitates actual cultural engagement. His other suggestion, recreating fictional character’s adventures, I found less appealing as it might have some real limits. While he cautions against unwise activities (specifically illegal and/or dangerous ones), I still found it difficult to imagine myself wanting to replicate some literary scenarios. Both may prove difficult to impossible to try before traveling. Still, it might be fun to eat at a restaurant patronized by a favorite character, right?

Mary Ellen Dingley, however, suggests nine types of book for traveling, some which can be read before leaving.[††] Her ideas ranged from bringing books that comforted or encouraged (travel can be daunting) to checking out classics, recent best sellers, and poetry hailing from your destination, particularly when traveling abroad. One of her more intriguing ideas involves reading a favorite YA novel in translation, a tactic that lets you practice reading in the language of host country. While her article isn’t bogged down with selection criteria, there’s enough suggestions to give readers several directions to try before settling down with a reading list.

Destination Reading: Plotting What to Read for Travel by R. E. Gould
Packed and ready to read for travel.

Ready to Read and Roam

For my own part, I read numerous book lists. Goodreads (of course) was helpful, as were lists provided by local authors. I selected several books, mostly fiction (my reading preference), that appeared on multiple lists. I made sure that I had books by women writers (something many lists neglect still!), as well as books embracing different periods for some historical perspective. At present, I’m rather excited because the books I ordered through my library system’s online catalogue arrived, [‡‡] and I’m set to pick up a stack of books set in place where I plan to visit this summer. For me, it’s thrilling to begin my travels through the words of people who know where I’m going best. And perhaps that why I like to read before I go: I can’t wait to see where I’m headed.

Do you read before you travel? If so, what are your favorite literary adventures? Also, sign up for the Sequence newsletter to stay current with the latest posts!

NOTES:

[*] Or, when they’re actual places, on the Internet.

[†] My upcoming trips will alternate between city tours and outdoorsy adventures, meaning I need good walking shoes and hiking boots in my luggage.

[‡] “Travel reading” as a search term elicits articles suggesting books about traveling and/or traveling as self-discovery, travel memoirs, wanderlust, best travel guides, best books to take on vacation (with a heavy slant towards beach reading), etc. Reading (and writing) about travels of all kinds truly beguiles us.

[§] Like electric outlets. When I arrived in London, I knew I would encounter differences (spelling, pronunciation, crossing the street), but it was ordinary objects that worked similarly yet appeared so different that surprised and delighted me.

[**] The degree to which this may be acceptable varies from places and among individuals. In some places, crowds and/or a touch of cheesiness won’t turn meaningful sites awful, whereas other experiences suffer because they provide little value.

[††] Much like Hershberger, she suggests e-readers because they hold many books without incurring excess luggage fees. I tend to favor a real book, personally, because my beautiful intentions to read are often thwarted by actual desire to see and do—or the resulting sleepiness from having seen and done! One book will suffice in such cases. Had I longer trips with more planned leisure time, I’d consider the e-reader.

[‡‡] Okay, I’d still be excited if they weren’t about a vacation spot, because books, but still the prospect of adventure increases my excitement.

Weather in Writing: a Dynamic Literary Device

Although weather may properly be considered part of the setting, both its ubiquitous effects and changeable nature allows it to extend into plot, characterization and more.

Blame it on the weather,[*] but I’ve been considering the role that weather plays in fiction writing. Being informed about the weather is useful for selecting appropriate outerwear and activities. It even provides us with something to discuss about when we greet people. But when weather appears in fiction (either as exposition or dialogue), it exists to accomplish certain narrative goals. Although weather may properly be considered part of the setting, both its ubiquitous effects and changeable nature allows it to extend into plot, characterization and more. In the following, I discuss several selections that demonstrates weather’s versatility in fiction.

Plotting Weather

Weather’s pervasiveness and its effect on human lives, of course, is the primary reason it makes an excellent plot device. Stories featuring weather-related catastrophes (from seafaring disasters such as Carol Birch’s Jamrach’s Menagerie to cli-fi dystopias such as Margaret Atwood’s Oryx and Crake) are indebted to the weather for creating their central conflict: survival. These stories frequently rely upon but don’t require epic storms to create a crisis. In Jack London’s short story “To Build a Fire”, harsh winter conditions are normal in the Yukon. The protagonist hikes only with his dog despite warnings to travel in company when it’s dangerously cold. Several mistakes on this frigid day turn this walk into a struggle for life. However, snowfall plays a starring role in creating a very different survival situation in “Three Blind Mice” by Agatha Christie.[†] As forecast by the wireless news, the inhabitants of Monkshood Manor are trapped indoors by a blizzard. Well prepared for the storm, their real difficulty is that one of them is a murderer. However, weather, severe or otherwise, needn’t be life threatening to be a plot point. Although alarming, a tornado’s brief appearance in All the Living by C. E. Morgan merely threatens protagonists Aloma and Orren, reminding them that they need some contact with the world beyond their farm.[‡]

Weather in Writing: a Dynamic Literary Device
The forecast for Agatha Christie’s “Three Blind Mice” is heavy snow and murder.

Symbolic and Moody Weather

In her article about the role weather plays in literature, Kathryn Schultz discusses how weather went from “mythical to metaphorical”, “with atmospheric conditions…stand[ing] in for the human condition”.[§] Schultz observes that such representations may to refer to individuals, relationships, or societies. Mary Tyrone, a woman suffering from morphine addiction in Eugene O’Neill’s play Long Day’s Journey into Night, declares that she loves the fog because of its ability to conceal the world. Fog, of course, represents the addicted state into which Mary escapes from unpleasant realities such as her son’s illness. The presence of snow in Richard Wright’s novel Native Son, however, works at the societal level. Through much of the novel, Bigger Thomas is surrounded snow, a subtle allusion to how his existence as a black man is circumscribed and controlled by white society.

Weather in Writing: a Dynamic Literary Device
A foggy night, such as might be seen in Long Day’s Journey into Night.

Symbolic or not, weather in fictional works help authors set the mood. How a writer characterizes the weather in a fictional account will dictate the reader’s emotional response. In the opening lines of “The Story-Teller”, we’re told it’s a “hot afternoon” and that “the railway carriage was correspondingly sultry” (129).[**] Already, readers feel the wearying, perhaps irritable quality of this journey even before we learn that the “unsympathetic” bachelor will share an hour’s train ride with three boisterous children and their aunt, a woman who is ill adept at entertaining her charges (129). Similarly, the fog symbolizing Mary’s addiction in Long Day’s Journey also establishes an atmosphere of tension early in the play. Mary remarks that that the foghorn’s warnings kept her awake and unsettled her nerves. Yet, her family (particularly son Jamie) are all too aware that such restlessness is a symptom of her drug use and check for signs of addiction, something which makes her self-conscious and more nervous.

Foreshadowing Forecasts[††]

Scrying the skies for portents of poor weather to modern weather forecasts are among the numerous ways humanity has attempted to tell the future of weather. Yet weather, often working in conjunction with mood, can hint at events to come in fiction. In The Great Gatsby,[‡‡] the warm breeze fills Nick with “the familiar conviction that life was beginning over again with the summer” (8). Nick’s reflection suggests renewal is in the offing: Nick will reacquaint himself with Daisy and Tom just as Gatsby will restart his love affair with Daisy. In a different vein, Zora Neale Hurston presages a devastating hurricane in Their Eyes Were Watching God with several events, among them an animal exodus and the uncanny stillness of the wind. Many, Janie and Tea Cake among them, choose to remain because they think the storm will not be severe. Before he leaves, ‘Lias attempts to persuade the couple to accompany him by stating “dis muck is too low and dat big lake is liable tuh bust” (148).[§§] As predicted, the lake floods, forcing everyone remaining to flee to high ground.

Weather in Writing: a Dynamic Literary Device
In Their Eyes Were Watching God, a hurricane (likely more severe than this storm) devastates Florida.

Characteristic Weather

Using meteorological metaphors, as discussed in Schultz’s article, provides information about characters, ranging from physical characteristics to personality traits (replying icily, for example, uses weather to indicate displeasure). Conversations about weather also can reveal information about characters. In Robert Frost’s narrative poem, “Home Burial”,[†††] clashing notions of appropriate grieving coupled with an offhand remark about weather precipitate a rupture. The husband’s clumsy attempts to speak of their dead child infuriates his wife, particularly when he suggests she overly grieves. Infuriated, Amy accuses him of lacking feeling, given how casually (to her mind) he dug the child’s grave (ln71–78) and discussed his “every day concerns” (ln 86):

‘Three foggy mornings and one rainy morning

Will rot the best birch fence a man can build.’

Think of it, talk like that at such a time!

What had how long it takes a birch to rot

To do with what was in the darkened parlor?

You couldn’t care….(ln 92–7)

One can almost hear the door slam at the poem’s close.

Drawing from Weather

Weather’s profound effect on humanity is evident when we examine literary works. Beyond its humble role in the setting, it pervades mood, portrays us, and even “plots” against us, just as it does in real life. Utilized wisely, fictional weather helps underscore the thrust of a writer’s story, adding depth and complexity. And that makes weather a dynamic literary device.

What is your favorite example of literary weather? Share it in the comment section below. Also, sign-up to the Sequence’s newsletter and keep current with the latest posts.

NOTES:

[*] Or that snowy scene that may or may not appear in a story.

[†] This short story was based on the radio broadcast of the same name. Ultimately, Christie transformed the radio play into the famous West End play, The Mousetrap. Familiarity with either play or story will work for this example.

[‡] They add a television to their home, a sensible decision given that Kentucky is tornado prone (925 tornadoes were observed between 1950 to 2015.

[§] Pathetic fallacy, that is attributing human emotion to inanimate objects in nature, often wears the guise of weather in literature.

[**] Saki. The Best of Saki. London: Penguin Popular Classics, 1994.

[††] I could argue that the hardworking fog in Long Day’s Journey (or at least the foghorn) also foreshadows Mary’s relapse. But, I thought I’d reward this example with the rest of the day off, since it’d already done so much.

[‡‡] Fitzgerald, F. Scott. The Great Gatsby. Cambridge: Cambridge U Press, 1991.

[§§] Hurston, Zora Neale. Their Eyes Were Watching God. New York: Harper & Row, 1990.

[†††] Frost, Robert. Robert Frost: Poetry and Prose. New York: Henry Holt, 1984.