Literary Devices
The organizing principle of my life: words.

Before all else, it had been comics, writing squeezed into captions and speech bubbles. I wrote my characters into the limited real estate of three or four panels, letting both image and words shape meaning, carry the joke. I was obsessed with the riddle-like weight of each word—so little space to capture character, tell a story, and make it snappy. 

Before long, I dove into poetry and built worlds for myself. Experimental places where I could twist and tug language into new shapes. Around this time, I also became obsessed with linguistics. A science of communication, words as acts, the universal humanness of verbs, language living, breathing, always shifting, never improper. Enveloped in poetry, language fluoresced with secret power.

But then there was always the danger of getting precious about poetry and its weight. What is poetry, really? It’s talking into the void. It’s turning the lights off and on, replacing feelings with places, poking the bruise because it feels bad and good at the same time. I wrote the thing, then the next thing, then the next—and never hung around for the impact. My life was richer for living in the world of poems, but other obsessions fueled me: linguistics still, but also memory, the internet, films, books, and design.

So I wandered elsewhere. A lifelong preoccupation with organization and strategy simmered below the surface. When I studied the things, products, services, and places around me, it was clear that we’re inevitably (and obviously) guided by language. The principles from the literary world seem to apply so generously to our everyday experiences of worldly things. What happens when we expect personality and meaningfulness and delight and assurance from the things in our lives? I examined the words doing work around me. Often, the glut of messages pursuing us in everyday life feels like a type of saturation. I’m echoing the thoughts of those who’ve said it better: wow, in this flood of content, it’s so easy to come across as out of touch, superficial, generic. Perpetually editing, I bristled at oblivious, sloppy copy, misleading UX writing, moments where words lead us astray and render a product or experience un-intuitive or inaccessible. You don’t have to be a designer to get frustrated with bad design.

I zeroed in on bad copy, wherever I found it: subway ads, the small print of my health insurance’s website, museum labels. At its best, the bad copy was dumb, funny, screenshot-worthy; at its worst, dangerous and offensive. It fueled an endless expectation for smart, conscientious content and copy. One day, doing this little mental editing, I paused to wonder which part of my brain was actually at work. Was it my editing brain? Or my sheeplike consumer brain, bored to death? Or, as I picked out connotations, audiences, rhythm, voice—could it be my poet brain? Or linguist brain? Or sometimes, honestly—my most underdog brain: the cartoonist one?

The copy, the strategy that put it there, its relationship to design overall. When it’s all done well, it’s beautiful. An app, an exhibition, a commercial, a manifesto, a sign, a menu—I love when language becomes part of that thing, whatever the thing is. When it’s good, words are getting shit done. They were never Lorem Ipsum, to be filled in later, but part and parcel of the overall design, the overall experience, in harmony with visual elements, working gracefully with space limitations. Idealistic, here. As with poetry, there’s the distilled expression of voice and an entire experience that may hinge on word choice. It doesn’t have to be beautiful or bold or funny to be excellent, I also came to appreciate— often, the best copy is an invisible guide through an experience, trustworthy and crystal clear. 

When I see language in design accomplishing things with great style, I’m moved in a strange way—here is, absolutely, the sharpening of blurred things, here is a taxonomy erasing mysteries, here is the business of turning grey areas into black and white ones and then sticking around to measure our human experiences. I like thinking about language in context, language doing work, language as a gentle guide, language driving accessibility, language in service of an audience. In this process, I’ve learned that there’s no one way to tell a story, no one way to be a writer. And like language itself, I know I’ll keep shifting. 

Zoë Bodzas works with fiction/nonfiction and translation rights at McIntosh & Otis, Inc. in New York, NY. She can be found on Twitter at @zoebodzas, on Instagram at @adventureberry, or her website

Art used in this issue: “World of Desire” by Leonora Carrington
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