Defying Margo Lanagan (updated)

Because Margo Lanagan is one of the best writers I know, and is wonderful in every way, and has written two of the best short story collections ever published (White Time and Black Juice)—I should probably follow her rules of writing to the letter.

But, see, she has this list of banned words and every one of those words sings to me:

    obsidian* (Margo says, “only okay when used to describe arrowheads”.)
    roiling* (Margo says, “must be used with care”.)

There are heaps more but I can’t remember the rest. Help me out, Margo? Margo’s Clarion students?

Update: *Are Margo Lanagan additions to the list.

Ever since I heard of the existence of Margo’s banned words list it has become my goal in life to use every single one of them whenever possible. (I’m proud to say that one of the chapter titles in Magic or Madness is “Maelstrom”.) I can’t tell you what a difference it makes to have such a noble purpose. It was like being reborn.

Thank you, Margo! You’ve not only given me wonderful works to read, but a purpose in life.

And maybe I can inspire all of you in turn to start accreting wondrous corruscating volumes of words whilst smelling the sweet sweet sweet jasmine that is succour to all us arty writer types . . .

Write well, little angels, write well!


  1. scott w on #

    i used “effulgent” in each of my first five books, and I stand by my decision.

  2. margo on #

    tee hee. Now, let me think.

    you have to be very careful with ‘roiling’.
    i object to ‘obsidian’ when you just mean black. obsidian arrowheads are okay.
    ‘iridescent’, to use a justien expression, sux hairy dogs’ balls.
    things being ‘limned’ is pretty bad.
    ‘silken’? hmmm.

    i’ll collect some more for you…why didn’t you ask me last month, when I was reading a whole lot of really bad prose? i’ve forgotten all the things I was wincing at now.

    effulgent – there’s a reason it rhymes with ‘self-indulgent’ 🙂

  3. Rebecca on #

    what the hell is ‘limned?’ I’ve never heard of it.

    lalalalala. it’s 2 o’ clock in the morning, my paper is due tomorrow, and i haven’t started writing it yet!! excitement!

    some of those words i really don’t mind at all. mainly i stick to the only-use-said-when-writing-dialogue rule…. except when i don’t. eh.

    writing academic essays in past tense is making my brain melt. i thought academic writing was supposed to be in the present tense. argh.

  4. ebear on #

    Hee. I have used every one of those words.

    *sits with justine*

  5. ebear on #

    …well, maybe not effulgent. But now I will!

  6. Maggie on #


  7. robinwasserman on #

    I love maelstrom! (I also love these ‘how I write’ posts you keep doing. More, please.)

  8. veejane on #

    I wrote a college paper once, in which I included “boggle” “scrabble” and “sorry.” Because it was a paper about a Shakespeare play, I could not fit in “monopoly” or “mah jongg.”

    The things we do to entertain ourselves.

  9. Justine on #

    Scott W: And I in turn stand by my man. (I’ve always wanted to say that.)

    Margo: Oh no! I agree with you about limned! The skies are falling! The rest are perfectly cromulent and eerily describe my hair right now: My silken iridescent opposite of obsidian hair. You’re holding out though I know there are more!

    Rebecca: are there no dictionaries in your land? Is your google foo broken?

    limn, verb (t) 1. to represent in drawing or painting.
    2. Archaic to portray in words. [Middle English lymne(n), variant of lumine illuminate, from Old French luminer, from Latin lumen light]
    –limner, noun

    Bad, bad Rebecca! I hope you wrote that essay. They won’t let you write essays in present tense? Huh. I say defy them! Write your essays in present tense, second person!

    ebear: You’ve never used effulgent? Shame on you!

    Maggie: I’ll have you know, young lady, that this is deadly serious!

    Robinwasserman: Try to stop me! Though I feel that my “how to write novels” post is incomplete. How could I leave out the vital “defying Margo Lanagan” stage?! *Slaps forehead*.

    Veejane: But I bet you got “go” and “chance” in.

  10. Jay Lake on #

    Clearly Margo is not a fan of E.E. “Doc” Smith.

  11. claire on #

    wow, somebody else as picky as i am! i have a list too, but it’s much longer.

    and i stand by “limned”. sometimes it’s the only one that sounds right, but, like morphine, must be used sparingly.

  12. Justine on #

    Claire: you and Margo should get together and have lots of little killjoy babies 🙂

  13. Chris McLaren on #

    I’ve always thought that one of the really wonderful things about the English language is that we have this dizzying variety of words, often many of which can describe roughly the same thing but with important differences in connotation.

    That being said, if you’ve used ‘nacreous’ twice within three manuscript pages, you’re probably doing something wrong.

  14. Justine on #

    Chris McLaren: But “nacreous” is indispensable when you need a synonym for “iridescent”!

  15. jennifer, aka literaticat on #

    limned is my least favorite word ever. it actually makes me physically recoil. i can’t believe i just had to type it.

    whilst is rather a jolly joke of a word. i use it to communicate that i am speaking in a snooty british accent, don’t you know. what? right-o.

    but “jasmine”? I don’t get it. what if it is about a girl named jasmine? or what if it is set in los angeles and the smell of night-blooming jasmine is just everywhere? or what if they are jasmine farmers?

  16. Chris Howard on #

    I agree with Margo on whilst, amidst and amongst. Overuse may be the problem with most of these. Well, except for effulgent. We could all use more effulgence.

    I assume it’s a metaphoric maelstrom. What do you do when you’re writing about a whirlpool of extraordinary size or violence? Whirlpool sounds like a kitchen appliance. At the least, something I could climb out of with some vigorous dog paddling, but a maelstrom is going to take my boat and me to the bottom.

  17. ebear on #

    I rather like the word limned. It is evocative of a certain quality of pain, or light, or both.

  18. Rajan K on #

    I have used iridescent, roiling and obsidian all in the past few days.

  19. margo on #

    OK, I’ve been over to Claire’s list – and was reminded of ‘atop’ *shudder*

    justine, nacreosity is quite different from iridescence. plus, it’s usually not good enough just using a synonym for these words. writers use ‘iridescent’ just to mean ‘pretty and shiny’, when I want to know exactly how the thing is pretty and shiny. I want specifics.

    chris: i reckon people should communicate the maelstromness
    of something without using the actual word. i am deeply over its being used to communicate a storm of emotions.

    literaticat: girl called jasmine is okay. commonsense use of jasmine in scene-setting is okay. use of jasmine to communicate wafty romantic sweetness and delicacy and beauty is not okay.

    This is just a quick drive-by. tonight i will be back with more forbidden words and clarify a few things.

    oh. people may never ‘ululate’. no, not even mourners in fantasy stories. ululation is out. out.

  20. Dave Schwartz on #

    I gotta say, I’m with Margo–with the possible exception of “accretion” and “maelstrom,” which may only be used in the geological and hydrological senses, respectively. The rest are over-the-top.

  21. Rebecca on #

    “Rebecca: are there no dictionaries in your land? Is your google foo broken?”

    Er….yes? Actually, I don’t have a dictionary here, come to think of it.

    I wrote the essay. And then went to bed promptly at 6:30 a.m. Go me. Prof says that the reason we write in past tense is that the essay is critting a flyer, which already happened. Or something. Makes sense now.

  22. Justine on #

    David Schwartz: I knew I didn’t like you . . . 🙂

    Rebecca: If you have internet access you have a dictionary! Sheesh.

  23. Rebecca on #

    *hides face in shame*

  24. Justine on #

    And so you should! 🙂

  25. ebear on #

    But iridescent doesn’t mean “pretty and shiny.” It means “iridescent”! As in, you know, iridescent. Reflecting a transparent sheen of rainbows, as a oil slick, a crow’s feather, a nice fresh piece of raw tuna, the surface of a cup of black coffee, a dragonfly’s wing, etc.

    (And no, it doesn’t mean the same thing that nacreous means. But nacre is iridescent.)

    Hey, I just realized, if I write more New Amsterdam stories, I can use all these words as titles, since the titles of the existing ones all relate in some way to qualities of light…..

    Thanks, Margo!

  26. Chaz on #

    ‘Whilst’ is one of my absolute hate-words, although – literaticat – I do speak with a snooty British accent; I hate it because it’s empty, it’s just a vain way of saying ‘while’, it adds no extra meaning at all. Except to speak about the vanity of its user, perhaps – but even that’s unreliable, because some people out there use it because they think it’s more correct. Bah! Humbug!

    Nobody’s mentioned ‘pellucid’, which is a word that always causes me to throw things; it’s a Roget’s word, not a writer’s word.

    On the other hand, the book I’ve just sent off certainly includes iridescent silken roiling (mmm…). Ain’t it funny how personal hates assume the position of absolute rules? Nobody should eat liquorice, I say. But thing is, people are always asking us for rules, writing-wise, so…

  27. ebear on #

    Hah! *defies Chaz too*

    Pellucid is a great word! It’s “limpid” without the erectile dysfunction.

  28. Justine on #

    Ebear: I’m pretty sure all of the words here except the preps and articles are on Margo’s list: “Reflecting a transparent sheen of rainbows, as a oil slick, a crow’s feather, a nice fresh piece of raw tuna, the surface of a cup of black coffee, a dragonfly’s wing”. Go you!

    Isn’t this a fun game to play? I’ve even started using words—“pulchritudinous”, “exhortatory”, “pellucid”—that I merely suspect Margo will veto.

    “Limned” was killed for me by wanky philosophy Phds. I mourn its loss. Perhaps its being on Margo’s list and your enthusiasm for it will bring it back to life for me.

    Chaz: Whilst I would love to have some fellow feeling for your comments, mournfully I do not. Pellucid! Pellucid! Pellucid!

    Of course, nobody should eat liquorice. It’s Satan’s noodle.

    Ebear: Defy them all! Use all the $100 words! Split those infinitives! Dangle those participles! Run amok with adverbs! A pox on all their houses!

  29. Snobahr on #

    “Silken” is good to use to describe sauces (as in food). “Whilst” can be used willynilly if one is writing in a Victorean (or earlier) countryside.And I love “pulchritudinous.” It evokes such a strong image and just makes me grin. Any sentence or paragraph that makes me grin in that fashion is okay in my book.

  30. ebear on #

    Well, “limned in golden light,” frex–that’s right out, except ironically, or possibly in a certain kind of first-person narrative. On the other hand, I’m rather fond of this sentence:

    Flickering torchlight picked out the river of Fae, limned them like the demons of Faustus, and the heat of it stroked Kit’s cheek.

    (Yeah, back to Marlowe again. I will sell this book some lifetime.)

  31. Justine on #

    Snobahr: “Pulchritudinous” is prolly my fave word in all the world. It features heavily in my current book. So far I’ve used it more than 20 times. Go me!

    Ebear: How long has your book not been sold? My complete work of genius (and that’s a modest appraisal, people) adult novel is coming up for its tenth anniversary . . . We will both sell them eventually! I can feel it in me bones!

  32. claire on #

    “pulchritudinous” is five syllables and contains one consonant knot of four incompatible letters. i feel like my tongue is knotting, just looking at it. “pretty” is two syllables and has a double consonant, which is, well, pretty.

    i’m just saying.

    i have no idea why i don’t hate “limn”. it’s the most pretentious word in the dictionary. there’s an art/design gallery in san francisco called “limn”, and yes, it’s the snootiest one around. and yet, i like me the word.

    there’s no accounting for taste. favorite word? purple. i don’t think i’ve ever used it in a story.

    favorite words, anyone? oh, wait, i think i’m gonna have to post this on my own blog.

  33. Muneraven on #

    There just are no bad words. They are all good. I love them all.

    Looking at words and trying to choose the bad ones is like walking into a preschool and trying to choose which kids aren’t any good. Come on, spend enough time there and they ALL have some redeeming qualities!

    The only word I try not to use in my fiction is “mendacity” and that’s just because I retired that word in honor of Tennessee Williams, rather like a baseball team retires a jersey number.

  34. ebear on #

    Justine, only since 2003. You have me way beat.

  35. ebear on #

    But “pretty” is vague and nonspecific, and “pulchritudinous” is a very, very specific type of attractiveness, evoking the aesthetic sensibility of R. Crumb and Lord Leighton.

  36. Candra on #

    “Limn” is a word I like. A lot. I also never use it except to say that I like it. So maybe there are words that are okay to exist but not to use?

  37. Rachel Brown on #

    but as bear said, iridescent is a very specific word that means a certain thing. whyever not use it if you’re describing something that’s iridescent? that’s like banning the use of the word red.

    jasmine also means a specific thing, a name or a flower or a scent. where i grew up it was very often used to make garlands. again, one might as well ban “rhododendron.”

    ditto obsidian, though I agree that it should only be used to describe the rock.

    maelstrom is also a very nice word.

    the others are a bit pretentious, but should be fair game for comic writing. i am now looking for an excuse to use ululating in a sentence. “The car alarm wouldn’t shut off, and now all the neighbor’s cats were ululating.”

  38. Justine on #

    Just a reminder to everyone: Margo is not entirely serious about any of this. The jesting light is on.

  39. Liz Henry on #

    True in poetry too:

    so much depends

    obsidian mael

    roiling with

    amongst the jasmine

    I always used to notice Stephen Donaldson’s overuse of roiling, chiaroscuric, fuliginous, and other words like that!

  40. holly on #

    Ha! I used limned in Ironside. Go me.

  41. sylvia on #

    “so much depends

    obsidian mael

    roiling with

    amongst the jasmine

    LOVE it!

  42. Justine on #

    Liz Henry: Priceless! I need a T-shirt made with that on it. Shall give it to Margo for Chrissie.

  43. Susan on #

    I’m pretty sure luminescent came up at CS05 – with both Tess and myself guilty parties… or was it incandescent?

  44. margo on #

    How else are you going to quickly describe the play of light on a puddle of gasoline in the gutter?

    excuse me, are we writing or doing crossword puzzles here? 🙂 🙂 🙂

    There are lots of ways to describe this, and quickly too. Howard waldrop reckons there are [insert bazillionish number here] ways to describe something wrongly, but there is only one way to describe it right—i’ll take it to mean, so that the whole description shines and sings, not just the sing-y word in the middle of the description.

  45. margo on #

    Susan, you should have a list written down somewhere. *peers at susan over half-spectacles* I haven’t written them down, myself, except prior to talking about them in writing workshops; my forbidden-words list changes according to what I read. It’s also personal: e.g. after reading the first third of Beverley Farmer’s the bone house I instituted a ban for her on the word ‘translucent’ – and no, I didn’t tell her about it. These are just the core words in a shifting pattern of irritation that happens completely in my own head. mostly. thanks for telling the freakin world, justien.

    Yes, most of the ‘-escent’ suffixed words get the sword – opalescent, luminescent, tumescent.

    Thanks for pointing out the jesting light, justine; things are getting positively hostile over at ebear’s blog. People railing about ‘these dogmatic lists’ – this is so not a dogmatic list! It’s not even a list of words I don’t like or have never used myself. This is a list of words that I’ve seen used so badly, so often, that I’ve now got an instinctive wince reaction when I see them.

    Anyone who’s heard me talking about this list will know that it’s a species of joke. I’ve considered blogging about it before this; I’m thinking it was probably a good idea not to…

    I like candra’s comment: “maybe there are words that are okay to exist but not to use”. Sometimes I think these “forbidden” words are words that have a lot of power, and people use them without knowing how to fully control – or fully release – that power. I just want them used so that they don’t stick out of their paragraphs like sore and self-conscious thumbs.

  46. margo on #

    PS: justine, size 12 will be ideal. 🙂

  47. margo on #

    pps: I’m with chaz on “pellucid”. put that on the list too.

  48. Justine on #

    Margo: Thanks for explaining more fully! I’m beginning to think I should have a big smiley face at the end of each post . . . At least I know you’re funny!

    Noted on your T-shirt size.

    Adding “pellucid” to the list!

  49. ebear on #

    I am afraid that this is the secrit bane of the Internets. Everybody is very serious.

    Except me and thee. And most of the time, people assume I’m serious.


  50. Justine on #

    Nah, it’s the bane of life. See my next post. I was getting into trouble on account of misread irony (oh, okay, clumsy sarcasm) long before the intramawebby.

  51. margo on #

    and don’t forget the other ‘escent’ words in there…

  52. Christopher on #

    I think it’s clear to anyone who knows her that Justine’s use of “pulchritudinous” is in its secondary sense of “morally excellent.”

    Love all the badinage, but I hear the teakettle ululating atop the stove and I must fly!

  53. James T. on #

    Most of these words are swooningly romantic and pretentiously hyper-literary but I seriously see nothing wrong with “iridescent.” How else are you going to quickly describe the play of light on a puddle of gasoline in the gutter?

  54. Richard on #

    I can’t believe no one’s mentioned “crepuscular” yet. That definitely goes on the list.

    USians using “whilst” makes Baby Cthulhu cry…

  55. margo on #

    i meant to add: you describe it in a way that particularly fits the story and the observing character. there aren’t many characters [well, okay, i just don’t write about them much] to whom the word ‘iridescent’ would occur when a puddle flashed at them in passing.

    richard: i’m with you on ‘crepuscular’, but i don’t think it’s as widely used as some of the others. add it anyway justine. the more the merrier!

  56. Ray Davis on #

    “my forbidden-words list changes according to what I read”

    Yes, it’s highly contextual. All words are naturally good, but they can fall into bad company, and sometimes we need to get the poor dears out of their usual haunts for the benefit of all.

    “See” and “look” are, at heart, stalwart salt-of-the-earth types, but after reading dozens of closing epiphanies headlined by “See:” or “Look:”, I wish they could be banished from poetry for a few decades.

    On the other hand, I can imagine Stephen Colbert deploying “crepuscular” and “effulgence” very successfully. Together, even.

  57. Justine on #

    Indeed, Ray, Stephen Colbert is a god of words and can deploy and invent them at will.

  58. jane yolen on #


    they simple shine there.

    corruscating, murmuration, and their ilk are great friends of mine.

    but ichor—ichor is to laugh!


  59. cj on #

    One of my students wrote “whilst” in a poem. I thought it looked ridiculous until I realized…he was from another country.

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