Not the best shot, but they were running around like, well, like turkeys
For the last couple of months, around 20 wild turkeys have been strolling their gobbling paths through the open fields of my neighborhood. It’s amazing when they cruise by the field close to my Airstream office, because they are startlingly big birds, and in their turkeyness, quite odd-looking ones too.
Since spring is just a snapped window-shade opening away, lately the male birds have begun to whip up their tail feather tuxedo, to give the ladies a peek at the splendid side. If you don’t spend a lot of time looking at a turkey’s backside, you might never have seen their flashdance, where they fan those tail feathers in a broad semicircle, displaying the the bright bands of color at feather’s end.
It’s an eye-catching sight, and an impressive one too. One of the reason it impresses is that the birds don’t do it constantly, so that the amazement threshold dims; instead, they putter and poke around, grubbing in the fields in their civilian clothes. It’s only when some kind of unseen “Showtime!” signal occurs that they feel the need to fan out their deck of face cards, and then quickly put them away.
Just a Flash, and No More
The flash of color, of intrigue, of insight—I think that’s what we should do with our writing. No one likes heavy writing, that draws attention to itself by pounding you in the face, then in the gut, then the face again. But what if in what you’re reading, a curtain quickly opens and you see something intriguing, only to have it close again? Wouldn’t you read a bit further to see what’s behind the curtain?
Though there are many ways to insert elements in your writing that might be considered revelations—surprise, your lead character was actually a lovestruck alien from the 25th century!—here I’m just talking about interesting turns of phrase, vivid language used with sparing care. Flashes in writing are momentary: they offer a promise, provoke intrigue, suggest something more. It harkens to the same psychological mechanism of the slot machines: there are small payoffs (and they are loud and colorful) in between stretches of quiet. It’s a mechanism you can use to send a flare of interest, no matter if you are writing business copy or a novel.
Words Take Wing
I’m a word guy first, so I gravitate toward language to put the trot in my turkeys. Be conscious of flat turns of phrase in your work, whether you type for business or for tale. Give flat phrases a face by filling in their features: stronger verbs, interesting syntax, varying sentence rhythms. Let’s look at a standard sentence turkey, followed by one flashing his charms:
He walked unsteadily through the crowd.
He careened, he lurched, he staggered, he chugged—we see his tripping traipsings with more vigor, more clarity, more delight.
Rearranging how your words fall can make them rise:
Dullard: Benjie was besotted, and his head lolled on his sloped shoulders.
Benjie, Better: Shoulders sloped, head lolling, see besotted Benjie.
Even being conscious of the sound of words (and how they sound strung together) can give your writing resonance:
Barely a Sound: He drove the taxi for hours through the dark streets of the suburban neighborhood.
More Music: He drove, the taxi’s sharp lights sniffing out the darkened curbs, the dull patches of suburban lawn grey-green in the bleak light.
Don’t Troll the Thesaurus
I’m not suggesting here that you become a thesaurus troll, someone picking canned words from a list—that will only make your words listless. Many are the sentences that are best served with solid Anglo-Saxon words. I’m also not talking about using unusual words just for the sake of novelty. Look not to pad your sentences, but to spice them, with language that is your own—but perhaps your own language after additional caffeine. This kind of word-by-word, sentence-by-sentence vigilance might seem wearying, but more wearying is reading writing that has no spark.
Putting Some Mustard on the Turkey
If you’ve every watched a turkey fly, you know it can look like someone tossed a large, unbalanced sack of feathers into the air. They are ungainly, awkward flyers, but they get the job done. And as I mentioned above, with their neck-stretching pecking-and-lunging walk, they can look peculiar on the ground too. But with that feather flash, they perform a magic trick: they turn their turkey trot into a show of style.
Yeah, I know—who wants to be identified as a turkey? But learning how to successfully write like a turkey has its benefits. As the old saying goes (with some editing), every turkey has its day. Show your tail feathers.