Thursday, June 18, 2015

The stinky fish guide to choosing and using big words in your children’s story.


What’s your favourite condiment?  What do you love to squirt onto your burgers, your dogs, your sandwiches?

(I’ll tell you what America’s current favourite is in a minute – and why it’s important to you as a writer.)

Know what condiment the ancient Romans loved best?  It’s called garum, a putrid blend made of stinky rotten fish.  The Roman writer Seneca called it an “expensive bloody mass of decayed fish [which] consumes the stomach with its salted putrefaction.”

Yum, right?  (OMG, no.)

Know why the Romans loved the stuff?  Because their food was so, so stinky that they needed a condiment strong enough to cover it up.  Ew.

The perfect condiment for stinky writing

Some people’s writing is like this, too.  Stinky stuff.  Their writing isn’t clear, their ideas are shallow – but they use big, fancy words, splashing them around like garum to cover up the stench.  They hope you won’t notice.

Have you ever read the poems of e.e. cummings?  His writing was the opposite of stinky – it was fresh as a buttercup.  If you’ve read his stuff, I don’t have to convince you of how beautiful little words can be.  Humble, simple words.

Take a look at this poem that e.e. cummings wrote in 1956 called maggie and milly and molly and may:

maggie and milly and molly and may 
went down to the beach(to play one day)

and maggie discovered a shell that sang
so sweetly she couldn’t remember her troubles,and

milly befriended a stranded star
whose rays five languid fingers were;

and molly was chased by a horrible thing
which raced sideways while blowing bubbles:and

may came home with a smooth round stone
as small as a world and as large as alone.

For whatever we lose(like a you or a me)
it’s always ourselves we find in the sea

Wow.  Is this ever powerful.  What are maggie’s troubles?  What was the horrible thing that chased molly?  Why does may feel so alone?

Yet the words he chooses are so very simple.  Sure, some aren’t everyday words (like languid), but none of them are polysyllabic nightmares.  None of them are at all hard to pronounce, even for a child.

Are your words putrid, or buttercup-fresh?

Some writers feel like they have to pick fancy words so they’ll seem articulate and smart.  They use language like they’re showing off.  The thing is?  Kids can tell when you’re showing off, and they don’t like it.

Others feel like using simple language is “talking down” to kids.

Do you do this?  I certainly do, sometimes.  Luckily, I catch myself when I edit my own writing, and scratch my head wondering what I was thinking. 

I know exactly what I was thinking:  words, words, words!  I love them, and hopefully, you do, too.  They’’re the Lego blocks that all our stories are made of.

I love using big words with children, and I’m not about to stop.  But e.e. cummings should be a reminder to all of us of what exactly you can accomplish with only a few simple words.  You can talk plainly, but still get the point across.

Can you use simple words? Test yourself

There’s a cartoon I love that you really ought to see. 

It’s a little big, but you can scroll through quickly to get the basic idea.  The cartoonist’s challenge was to describe something complex (a Saturn rocket) using only the “ten hundred” (ie 1000) most common words in the English language:

(click to see it full size)


[used with permission from xkcd]

What are those “ten hundred” words?  You can see a list of them here.

Could you describe a complicated idea in very, very simple words?  At first glance, it’s a ridiculous task, and you might end up sounding silly.  But it’s worth a try, even if you end up throwing in a few big and fancy words into your story anyway.  I totally love you for doing that, don’t worry.

Test it out for yourself in this awesome text editor.  Just type or paste your text into the box and it will yell at you in red letters about how many forbidden words you’ve used.


I’m absolutely NOT saying you should dumb down your story, or your great ideas.  I love big words!  I love big ideas!  (And you should, too.)

But shouldn’t you learn to appreciate the beauty of simplicity, just like e.e. cummings?

When can you use juicy, delicious words?

Today in the U.S., mayonnaise is most people’s favourite condiment.  Mayonnaise doesn’t really have much flavour of its own, but it brings out the creamy goodness in whatever you’re using it on.  I really like mayonnaise, but the thing about it is that if you mix it with something that doesn’t taste good – it still doesn’t taste good.  Mayonnaise is no good at covering up bad flavours.

Are your big spicy words covering up small, stinky ideas?

Big, blustery, delicious words are a condiment, so before you put them on, make sure you’re not just trying to cover up stinky writing.  Use them with care.  As much as I love mayonnaise, I’d never sit down to eat a bowl full of it.

Before you find yourself reaching for a juicy $15-dollar word, think about e.e. cummings for a second.  Think about maggy and milly and molly and may.  Think about the kid who’ll be holding your book in his hands.

Think about garum for a second, and the Romans who were driven to use it by the terrible food they’d have to eat plain otherwise.

Serve us up a savoury, satisfying dish, choosing simple words to weave a beautiful, rich story.  Then, season it gently, choosing fancy words with love.  Bring out the best in your ideas and kids will swallow it up and ask for more.


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