Captivating Language

The Captivating Language of Jen Stanford
The Captivating Language of Jen Stanford

In order to deploy captivating language, Strunk and White (Elements of Style), admonish us to avoid verbosity and present sentences in a positive form—that is, to avoid hesitant, ambiguous language—except when hesitancy and ambiguity are the intention.

Write, “He usually came late,” instead of “He was not very often on time,” and “He thought the study of Latin a waste of time,” rather than “He did not think that studying Latin was a sensible way to use one’s time.” 

Write, “The women in The Taming of the Shrew are unattractive. Katherine is disagreeable, Bianca insignificant.” This is preferable to: “The Taming of the Shrew is rather weak in spots. Shakespeare does not portray Katherine as a very admirable character, nor does Bianca remain long in memory as an important character in Shakespeare’s works.”

These examples expose the weakness of negation. Readers form a clearer, more vivid impression from a succinct description of what a thing is, rather than waffling about what it is not.

Not honest is better expressed as dishonestNot important = triflingDid not remember = forgot

You get the idea.

This passage from Jen Stafford’s short story, In The Zoo, is a testament to the power of captivating language.

‘[…] Daisy and I in time found asylum in a small menagerie down by the railroad tracks. It belonged to a gentle alcoholic ne’-er-do-well, who did nothing all day long but drink bathtub gin in rickeys and play solitaire and smile to himself and talk to animals. He had a little stunted vixen and a deodorized skunk, a parrot from Tahiti that spoke French, a woebegone coyote, and two capuchin monkeys, so serious and humanized, so small and sad and sweet, and so religious-looking with their tonsured heads that it was impossible not to think their gibberish was really an ordered language with a grammar that someday some philologist would understand.’

Here, the language is so concrete, so evocative and direct, that it catapults us into the scene. We see what the character sees, smell what she smells, hear what she hears. We would do well to emulate this in our own writing.


Use captivating language to drive your novels and screenplays. Tell us what a thing is rather than what it is not and do so directly, concretely and precisely.

Catch my latest YouTube video by clicking on this link!