Write Like Toni Morrison

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Remember the Universal Translator? Peter Wood, in like manner, provides a useful guide to translating regular English prose into the style of Nobel-prizewinning author Toni Morrison, probably the most frequently assigned writer on US college campuses. The basic rules:

  • Misuse common phrases
  • Embrace inconsistency
  • Omit words to create more forceful expression
  • Mix up parts of speech
  • Chop in self-conscious micro-sentences

He provides some wonderful examples. For instance, this office memo:

Just to remind you, I will be out of the office Tuesday to meet with our supplier, Acme Explosives. Please finish your work on the 2Q budget and let the account rep know that Mr. Coyote’s order will be shipped Thursday.


The reminding can’t wait the hurry of it. I explain. I know you know of Tuesday, I and Acme Explosives is soon together meet. You can please work, perhaps, the budget’s second quarter, and knowledge the account rep of Mr. Coyote’s Thursday shipment.

Wood also reminds us that Morrison is “the undisputed master of wandering verb tenses” and that she “knows how deftly to insert evocative foreign terms.”

But it is the anachronistic little details that are Morrison’s signature. My favorite occurs late in the book: “Ice-coated starlings clung to branches drooping with snow.” This is the 1690s, two centuries before the eccentric bird lover Eugene Schiffelin introduced starlings to the U.S. by releasing sixty of them in Central Park.

Schiffelin had no idea how the birds would proliferate, crowd out native species, and form enormous squawking, twittering, whistling flocks that seem to fill up whole forests. Starlings seem to propagate as fast as clichés and to descend like clouds of effusive blurbs on overpraised books.

[Cross-posted at Organizations and Markets.]

2:08 pm on November 22, 2008