Colorful Language or White Noise

LOL has joined love in the lexicon of the lazy. When is the last time you typed L-O-L after literally laughing out loud. As long as the comment or video didn’t make us weep like a Hallmark commercial, we tag it LOL and go about our day – LOL is white noise.

In the middle of a conversation about a terrible domestic situation, a friend surprised me with his colorful description. Noticing my disapproval, he said “sometimes it’s the appropriate phrase.” While I still disagree with his premise, I can’t deny that he said it, which brings me to my question: “Where does a writer’s voice merge with a character’s language?”

In “On Writing Well,” William Zinsser said, “Never say anything in writing that you wouldn’t comfortably say in conversation.” I almost never cuss, and when I do it’s a careless, or extremely emotional moment. Writing is never careless or extremely emotional for me. It is emotional, but it’s controlled and careful – I wouldn’t write the words I might accidentally say in a careless moment. Am I limiting mt character’s personalities with my voice? I don’t think so. But even if it did, I still wouldn’t select those phrases.

Hearing profanity and reading profanity are different experiences for me. I can’t control the words coming out of another person’s mouth, and they rarely bother me. But I can control what I read, and I guess I feel guilty when I read certain words. This happened while reading the language of Little Bee.

I don’t want my character’s language placing any reader in a similar place. I don’t want their words to undercut the story’s message.  And I think it’s possible to communicate extreme emotion, surprise, or fear without colorful euphemisms. I wonder if we all could? Instead of thinking of profanity as immoral, what would happen if we thought of it as cliché, as white noise?

In writing. Don’t use adjectives which merely tell us how you want us to feel about the things you are describing. I mean, instead of telling us the thing is “terrible,” describe it so that we’ll be terrified. Don’t say it was “delightful”; make us say “delightful” when we’ve read the description. You see, all those words (horrifying, wonderful, hideous, exquisite) are only like saying to your readers “Please, will you do my job for me.” – C.S. Lewis [source]

What if we wrote our prose in such a way that the reader imagined a response, without the character doing it for them? What if, instead of simply saying, “bleepity, bleepy, bleep,” we wound the tension so tight the reader felt what we imagined our character saying. Is it possible? Am I aiming too high?

Zinsser again, “the race in writing is not to the swift but to the original.” Could we be more original? I think we can.

Why don’t we reduce the white noise of colorful language, and instead fill our prose with more colorful writing.

Keep discovering writing.


  1. While I will not claim to be expletive-free, I think that those who rely solely on expletive-laden language suffer from a severely reduced vocabulary. As for in writing, it is a rare occasion that would ever even call for any vulgarity.

  2. Thank you! I hate crude language in speech and books. I think it is much more meaningful (if one must use it) when it is used rarely. Loved your post. I wish more authors and bloggers would cut out the white noise. I’m following you not only because you write well…but because I can tell you won’t offend me either. YEA!

  3. Your post is very similar to what I wrote about today. Zinsser writes an excellent section about clutter with words. Keep it simple, stupid (K.I.S.S) is the motto I go by – write with clarity. By the way, I was going to have to razz you about being a FSU player, but you redeemed yourself with the Steelers. Go PSU, is my vote. 🙂

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