The Prose Test Kitchen (2)


Good stuff coming: stay hungry!

But first, before more of Dillard’s tasty prose: I just won a blog award! You can see it in the sidebar. Ash from nominated “A Romantic Enters the World” yesterday for the Helpful Blog Award, and I got this super-cool award (drawn by Ash herself) to show off for a while:


As part of the contest rules, I will be nominating seven of the blogs I think are most helpful in the next few days. Would it be weird if I nominated Nathan Bransford?


Analyzing Annie: Alliteration Adds Punch (yes, that last word is supposed to break the pattern. As we will see, too much alliteration sends your readers running)

Remember this passage from yesterday:

“The day is real; the sky clicks securely in place over the mountains, locks round the islands, snaps slap on the bay. Air fits flush on farm roofs; it rises inside the doors of barns and rubs at yellow barn windows. Air clicks up my hand cloven into fingers and wells in my ears’ holes, whole and entire.” (12)

Notice how the use of alliteration adds to the overall rhythm of Dillard’s sentences: “snaps slap”, “fits flush” — everything sounds very clicky and short. And alliteration works hand-in-hand with Dillard’s snazzy verb-choice (snazzy verbs alliterate with the adjectives, etc. — p.s: is alliterate a verb? I think so): both play off each other to make her prose distinct.

The moth passage has epic alliteration:

“One night a moth flew into the candle, was caught, burnt dry, and held. […] A golden female moth, a biggish one with a two-inch wingspan, flapped into the fire, dropped her abdomen into the wet wax, stuck, flamed, frazzled and fried in a second. her moving wings ignited like tissue paper, enlarging the circle of light in the clearing and creating out of the darkness the sudden blue sleeves of my sweater, the green leaves of jewelweed by my side, the ragged red trunk of a pine. At once the light contracted again and the moth’s wings vanished in a fine, foul smoke.

Notice how the alliteration is only there in a flicker-y way: in and out, there and not there. Dillard doesn’t leap overboard with something like “Peter Piper picked a peck of picked peppers”. Sometimes we might not even notice Dillard’s use of alliteration because it just adds flavor. It’s like salt: too much is gross, but a little bit adds texture and flavor. Speak the passage out loud, noticing how all the soft sounds (“flamed, frazzled, fried”, “sudden/sleeves/sweater”) contrast harder sounds (“candle/caught”, “clearing/creating”, “ragged red”), making you speak louder, softer, faster, slower.

So. Recap:

  • Don’t overuse
  • But use! Adds style and flair
  • Vary sounds: you might use harder sounds (cold sounds) to describe winter — whereas spring is soft and flowery. But winter also has soft sounds (ice) and spring also has hard ones (think March: in like a lion). Be creative.

I am personally a big fan of alliteration. It’s something that can bring your prose from plain-old-normal to stylish and distinct.

Try this:

Pick out a morning paper headline — or zip over to and choose from about a thousand. Experiment with overboard alliteration that would make your editor laugh — or alliteration that might make your headline stand out a little more.


Have fun, be free, fool around…


(Dillard, Annie. Holy the Firm. New York: HarperCollins, 2003.)

Tomorrow: Blog Awards and blog carnival!



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3 responses to “The Prose Test Kitchen (2)

  1. Ash

    see, here’s another great post. ha, and no I don’t think it’d be weird to pick Bransford. He’s awesome! I drew that picture so long ago when I first started drawing manga by learning how online. if only i could remember where I saw it. . .Awell.

  2. Ash

    grrr, now i’m searching through my notepads and computer files cause you got me wondering!

  3. Susan Lowman-Thomas

    Intriguing. Careful analysis of Dillard’s work. Thanks.

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