Tone it down, writers: accuracy versus hyperbole Reply

Below this video there’s a passage full of over-stating – if you’re looking for a writing exercise, have a go rewriting it replacing the over-stated descriptions with something more subtle – with a true and accurate descriptions of the facts.

The smell of the pub was so vile that I nearly gagged. The noise was deafening and puddles of beer sloshed around the floor. Near the bar a group of nearly-naked women, their skirts like belts, screamed so loudly I thought glasses might shatter. I fought my way through the stench of cheap perfume and leant on the crumbling bar. The barman, a humungous knuckle-dragging lout, grudgingly poured me a beer and crashed it onto the decrepit bar, spilling most of the liquid over my feet. As soon as I sipped the beer I thought I was going to be sick. One of the women must have seen me wincing because her inch-thick layer of makeup cracked as she cackled to her cronies.

Video transcript follows below:

I used to work at the customer service desk in a bus station. I got to do Tannoy announcements: ‘The 16:45 380 service for Bangor, calling at Manchester Airport, Liverpool, Birkenhead, Ellesmere Port, Flint, Talacre, Gronant, Prestatyn, Rhyl, Towyn, Pensarn, Colwyn Bay, Llandudno, Conwy, and Bangor is delayed by approximately–’ And before I could finish the sentence there would be a swarm of people around my booth, all of them livid about the delay. And the thing I learned is that people have a set vocabulary for complaining: everyone said a delay was ‘ridiculous’ or ‘disgusting.’ Nobody said, ‘that’s irritating’ or ‘that’s mildly irksome.’ And the problem is, if you use the description ‘disgusting’ to describe the effects of the M62 roadworks, what vocabulary do you have left to describe, I don’t know, the Rwandan genocide?

A similar problem sometimes arises in fiction writing. When I’m annotating a manuscript, I use this symbol to indicate where I think an author is over-stating. For example, consider the sentence ‘The smell in the pub was so vile that I nearly gagged.’ Booker-Prize shortlisted author MJ Hyland writes of this sentence: ‘To say “nearly gagged” is not just clichéd, it’s barely credible. Something prosaic is better than the wrecking-ball of “gagged”. A more subtle and truer description of the smell would better serve to establish trust between the reader and writer. Something like, “The pub smelt of whisky and vegetable soup.”’

Similarly, beware of inappropriate intensifiers:
Her perfume was ridiculously strong.
The train was unbelievably crowded.
The task was absurdly simple.

In the build up to the 2012 Olympics, a Radio 5 reporter was sent to describe the passage of the Olympic flame. She reported ‘he’s carrying the Olympic torch. People are watching. It’s absolutely incredible.’ Not only was it not incredible, it was the exact thing that she and everyone else had expected to see. It was, in fact, the least incredible thing that could possibly have happened. But we can hardly blame the reporter for such an over the top description; after all, her job was to convince us that a man carrying a torch was exciting and newsworthy. But when we write fiction, we create the facts, and the facts should be strong enough to create the effect you want.

Below this video thre’s a passage full of over-stating – if you’re looking for a writing exercise, have a go rewriting it replacing the over-stated descriptions with something more subtle – with a true and accurate descriptions of the facts.

Thanks for watching and good luck with your writing.

The thumbnail for this video uses a photography by Jimmy Jack Kane. It’s covered by a Creative Commons license, and you can find more of his work here: http://rationaljimmy.com/

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