From Artie Ziff reading Jonathan Franzen’s The Corrections to Moe Szyslak coming perilously close to doing a Sylvia Plath, The Simpsons has always possessed a literary streak. Its playful approach to language has resulted in ‘d’oh’ becoming established as a perfectly cromulent word, which only a senseless dunderplate could deny. Sometimes the word-mangling is actually derived from a largely forgotten phrase, most famously Burns’ “ahoy-hoy” telephone greeting, which was originally suggested by the inventor Alexander Graham Bell.
When Homer becomes a food critic in a classic Simpsons episode from Season 11, Guess Who’s Coming To Criticize Dinner?, viewers are given an insight into the life of a wordsmith – hardly surprising given showrunner and episode writer Al Jean’s pedigree.
Study the tips that this classic Simpsons episode suggests, and the quality of your writing will be such that failing at English would be unpossible.
USE REAL WORDS
Sourcing the best word for a situation can elude even the finest writer. Innovation can be great: it’s a skill the all-time greats mastered. Dickens, for example, coined “butterfingers” and Shakespeare was the man behind “eyesore.”
Unfortunately, while you’re hopefully superior to Homer, it’s probably wise to assume you’re going to be craptacular in comparison to history’s most influential scribes. So inventing words like “pasghetti” and “momatoes” will result in ridicule rather than respect. Steer clear.
EMBIGGEN YOUR VOCABULARY
Words, words, words. As a writer, you become sick of the sight of them scattered across your screen. But ultimately you’re stuck with them, so it’s vital to allow your prose to sparkle with elegance by expanding your vocabulary.
“The only word they have for it is… [SLOBBERS],” says Homer when trying to pin down the correct description for a sweet, sweet chocolate mousse.
“What’s the English equivalent for [SLOBBERS]?” questions his writing partner, Lisa. “I’d say… transcendent!”
SIMPLICITY IS IMPORTANT
Magniloquence has a purpose, but such ornate language rarely produces easily digestible text. Describe it in one word if you can. Homer demonstrates that even he can excel at this as he observes the sights of Springfield from a revolving restaurant: “And the view is beautiful [a water fountain] … inspirational [a church] … nauseating [Patty and Selma working out] …”
A QUICK EDIT CAN MAKE ALL THE DIFFERENCE
Any writer will be familiar with the random attitude to deadlines. Sometimes you’ll have plenty of time to submit your work, but more commonly people want it done yesterday. A hastily-assembled article is an occupational hazard, but always make time for at least a tokenistic edit. Don’t make the same mistake Homer made with his first attempt at a commission. It’s far better to conclude a restaurant review with “bon appétit!” than “Screw Flanders!”
YOUR REVIEWS SHOULD BE BALANCED
In an increasingly polarised culture, it seems that everything is black or white, but rarely is anything worthy of pure praise or sheer scorn. In any review, try to find a positive in something underwhelming, or locate that one weakness in a masterpiece. It’s a trait Homer comes to excel in.
“So come to The Legless Frog if you want to get sick and die and leave a big garlicky corpse,” he sneers, adding, “PS: parking was ample.”
… BUT EMBRACE YOUR INNER CYNIC
Being a critic doesn’t mean that you have to like everything. Homer’s enthusiasm for food is overwhelming, which leads to a dressing down from the other staff on the Springfield Shopper. A cynical edge is par for the course, as the farming critic demonstrates, “I say it’s time to send John Deere a Dear John.”
Homer is slow to embrace such professional negativity, giving Marge’s shake-and-bake “my lowest score ever… seven thumbs up!” Yet he gets there eventually, as the chef Luigi reveals. “He gave me a bad review, so my friend put a horse’s head on the bed. He ate the head and gave it a bad review!”
Puns! What are they good for? They make your writing more entertaining, grab the reader’s attention and help to fill the word count.
As the episode progresses, Homer’s prior lack of ability evolves into a real flair for potent put-downs. “This pea soup is as weak as the acting,” he states during Krusty’s famously awful take on King Lear. “And nowhere near as hammy!”
BE AWARE OF CONTEXT
Wordplay can be useful in a variety of situations, but jarring or even offensive when used in the wrong context. You’re not going to be playful with language in obituaries, reports of natural disasters or Brexit news updates, for example.
Fully aware of this, Lisa rejects Homer’s suggestion that the food at Pâté LaBelle’s could be described as “groin-grabbingly transcendent.” It might’ve worked had he been analysing an adult entertainment website – perhaps www.sexyslumberparty.com, live from Flanders’ house.
PLAY THE GAME
Picture the scenario. You’ve been sent to review a terrible film, but just days later you’re also due to interview its star. Your subject isn’t going to open up if you immediately go into a tirade about how bad the movie is, so save that for the review.
Evidently, Homer didn’t realise that a little tact saves a lot of hassle. Which is why the chef at Luigi’s tried to chop his head off.
The editor’s reaction to Homer’s latest contribution (“This reads like it was written by a dog!”) is a depressing experience for our favourite four-fingered, food-thinkin’ friend. Such criticism is part and parcel of the job. You might be insulted on Twitter, have your text rewritten by someone who muddles “their”, “they’re” and “there”, or see your 800-word feature chopped to a sidebar. It’s rarely personal and you’re still – hopefully – getting paid.
“WELCOME TO THE HUMILIATING WORLD OF PROFESSIONAL WRITING!”
Writing is a heavily romanticised occupation, but the dream and the reality don’t always align. As Homer’s declaration suggests, you’re incredibly likely to have to write about something which doesn’t interest you in the slightest, and you’ll definitely encounter some of the industry’s array of myriad pitfalls. Yet there are worse ways to make a living.