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The Perils and Pleasure of Stilted Writing
Anne Janzer -- Membership Expert Anne Janzer -- Membership Expert
For Immediate Release:
Dateline: San Luis Obispo, CA
Tuesday, August 8, 2023

Man walking on giant pencils as stilts

Of all the Christmas Eves in my childhood, I remember most clearly the year someone brought a pair of stilts.

These stilts were things of wonder—light-colored wooden poles with red pegs for your feet. We celebrated the evening with another family, and we all took turns crashing around the house on them. Hilarity ensued.

As the youngest of the bunch, I loved the idea of being so much taller than everyone else for a moment. But walking on the things was much trickier than I’d hoped. Ballet classes hadn’t prepared me for balancing on poles.

I looked ridiculous. We all did.

Stilted writing

Something similar happens when we write with unfamiliar words or ideas. As we stumble to put one word after another, our prose lurches and wobbles.

High school teachers and college professors can spot if students are trying to bluff their way through a topic they don’t understand. Students try to hide behind elevated prose, and it shows.

When we elevate our tone beyond our own understanding, our language sounds (wait for it) stilted.

The issue stays with us beyond school. Faced with a blank page, many people put on a “writerly” hat and construct sentences they would never speak. That can work. But if they’re bluffing, either about what they know or who they are, the readers will sense it.

Of course, clowns and street performers learn to master the stilts. Likewise, famed literary writers may wield a style that towers over us mere mortals, pushing the boundaries of our understanding.

When we see this elevated writing, we should admire it. We might even try to imitate it as a learning exercise.

Having fun with stilts

In my book upcoming book on writing voice, I challenged myself to write instructions on how to tie a shoe in the most ridiculous legalese I could manage. Here’s an example:

Inasmuch as it is the obligation of a citizen to traverse common, public spaces without imperiling others or imposing undue liability on property owners, every person wearing footwear designed to be held on the foot by adjustable laces (excluding previously tied laces sewn on and held with elastic) shall fasten the two ends of the laces together in a form that keeps the shoe on the foot without creating a tripping hazard (and thus presenting questions of subsequent liability) for the wearer and those around them. The commonly accepted method of arranging these ties consists of two phases: 1) an initial half knot to set the desired degree of snugness, followed by 2) arranging the loose ends of the ties in a two-loop bow to safely secure the first knot while gathering the excess laces into the area above the wearer’s foot, using the technique described in the “Bunny Ears” rhyme (copyright unknown).

Can you see me tottering around on those verbal stilts? I was grinning as I wrote, like that kid at Christmas years ago.

The exercise also taught me something about what happens if I reach too high for the situation, and where I find stability in my writing.

How about you? Do you ever overextend your reach trying to sound like someone else? Or perhaps you should reach a little higher and see what that feels like? Experiment to find a level that is both comfortable and fun.

Want to dive deeper?

You can find exercises that challenge your writing style in my new book, The Writer’s Voice, available August 22, 2023.

Cuesta Park Consulting & Publishing publishes books and online courses for writers and marketing professionals. Books are available in print, ebook, and audiobook formats from a wide range of retailers. For more information, visit AnneJanzer.com.

News Media Interview Contact
Name: Anne Janzer
Group: Cuesta Park Consulting
Dateline: San Luis Obispo, CA United States
Direct Phone: 4155176592
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