I wish people would stop trying to use metaphoric language and sound “writerly”. It’s wrecking many otherwise good books. I might not have read Patrick Barkham’s beautifully delivered history on badgers, BADGERLAND, had he continued with the clumsy attempt at sounding like a writer that he demonstrates in it first paragraph. Here, for example, is one of the few weak sentences in his otherwise admirable work. He writes, “The sky was mad with stars and the bare branches were bullied by the wind that blew in from the east.”
He means his view of the stars was unimpeded by clouds and that the wind was so strong he could hear branches above him. He wants us to know it was nighttime, and that he was outside on a cold March night to look for badgers. I get that. Of course, I do. And while the sky was certainly not “mad” with stars and his personification of the wind as a bully sounds like what we were asked to write back in school when we were made to list “vivid” verbs, it is not a crime to write like that. Or rather, the only crime he commits is against his own book, which is far too good to have such amateurishness on its first page.
It’s only a sentence. And Patrick Barkham doesn’t write like that, at least in the rest of the book. His work is full of fascinating history, both personal to him and general about badgers. His grandmother, Jane Ratcliffe, was a great fan of badgers. “She had a skull on her sideboard and a special badger gate in the dry-stone wall between her garden and the wood.” This is wonderful writing, not because of how the words form on the page (though this, too, matters) but because Barkham has picked out details so specific about his grandmother, so aptly demonstrating her love of badgers, that I believe him and feel that within this brief glimpse of the late Ms. Ratcliffe I’ve momentarily viewed a vital, intimate part her personality generally reserved only for those who had been close to her, who perhaps had spent their whole lives with her. In other words, I feel privileged as well as informed. I feel part of things in BADGERLAND, and sink deeper into its world.
If you want to know how to write well, this is it. This is it. Writing well isn’t about vivid verbs or clever adjectives. I am not opposed to metaphorical language. Imagery can describe more accurately and set into motion the completion of an idea or object or emotion for the reader, the effect being to enhance the reader’s understanding of the subject at hand, and to deepen her thoughts about it. When Barkhan describes the badger’s face, with its two black stripes, as a “fright mask”, I understand exactly what he is talking about and think newly upon the face of the animal. I’m grateful for his artful use of language; I am enriched by it.
However, if you are stuffing your sentences full of unnecessary imagery or metaphor, you are either burying what is worthy of telling or have nothing to tell in the first place. Writing well is about what you say and what you leave out. It is about having something worth telling in the first place and then determining to deliver that thing accurately and economically. This is what Mark Twain said, of course, when he wrote, “Writing is easy. All you have to do is cross out all the wrong words.” We laugh about this, but it is a serious point. Get rid of the garbage and write accurately. Let your subject be illuminated by the writing, not obscured by it.
I don’t want to pick on Patrick Barkham or BADGERLAND. If I wanted an example of a misguided use of metaphorical language, I could just have easily chosen a sentence or two from one of my own books. I only mention BADGERLAND because the first paragraph really did put me off of this beautiful book. Everything that followed that first paragraph wowed me. He is a wonderful writer who knows his subject. If you love countryside, have an interest in British wildlife history, or just like badgers, buy this book. I loved it and I bet you will, too.
Meanwhile, in your own work, notice when you are leaning on language to carry you around and away from the thing you ought to be clarifying for the reader. Don’t fluff it. Go back and look, then look again. Feel around for the right words; discard all others.