"As to methods, there may be a million and then some, but principles are few. The man who grasps principles can successfully select his own methods. The man who tries methods, ignoring principles, is sure to have trouble."
Ralph Waldo Emerson
Burnt Tongue

Burnt Tongue


A technique from Minimalist writing that helps craft better narratives, forcing a reader to pay closer attention and remember your content.

Strategy is often talked about in terms of planning or choices. But one of the most overlooked elements of strategy is the importance of language and communication.

Sir Lawrence Freedman in his definitive book on the subject, Strategy: A History, outlined this dynamic;

“Not only does strategy need to be put into words so that others can follow, it works through affecting the behavior of others. Thus it is always about persuasion, whether convincing others to work with you or explaining to adversaries the consequences if they do not.”


Combining with others often constitutes the most astute strategic move. For this reason, the realm of strategy is one of bargaining, compromises and negotiation.

A good strategist succeeds through persuasion.

Think about advertising. The lifeblood of a strategist is insights, a simple distillation of a ream of information and data into an actionable statement to inspire creative teams or clients.

Or think about a CEO or Founder. They need to craft a vision for the future that sticks in the mind, and rallies employees and customers to choose their business.

In each case, we need to craft a quick ‘sound bite’ that can help interrupt the pattern and be memorable.

Minimalism Writing

When it comes to storytelling, an interesting technique comes from Minimalist writing, affectionately called ‘Burnt Tongue’. It was arguably created by author and teacher Tom Spaunbauer, and made famous by student Chuck Palahniuk, author of Fight Club.

Palahniuk describes Burnt Tongue as the following;

“A way of saying something, but saying it wrong, in an awkward and interesting way, twisting it to slow down the reader. Forcing the reader to read close, maybe read twice, not just skim along a surface of abstract images, short-cut adverbs, and clichés.”


The use of Burnt Tongue is applied for three reasons.

The first is to slow down the reader. Most people skim words and barely register what is on the page. When you purposefully play around with language, bending and misusing your words, you force the reader to read as if they’ve just learned how - drawing their attention closer and closer.

The goal is to make the audience read like mud, slowly.

The second reason builds on this - creating interest with poetic or unusual language. You can be fancy with your words, but always make sure you are editing for brevity..

Lastly is more esoteric - creating a sense of immediacy and honesty. Minimalist writing is always about mimicking the way real people tell stories, out loud. No one rushed or excited narrates a story with perfect language, or tells their audience how to feel. Sentences often run on too long, or they are chopped into shorter fragments.

Palahniuk uses The Harvest by Amy Hempel to showcase Burnt Tongue, and for good reason. Every word of the story feels tortured over, distilled. Perfect.

Just take the opening;

"The year I began to say vahz instead of vase, a man I barely knew nearly accidentally killed me."

You cannot skim over this without backtracking to really unpack the statement.

Or one of my favorite lines in literature;

“I moved through the days like a severed head that finishes a sentence.”

The Science of Memory

When we take this further and look at the science of memory, a few techniques can help augment Burnt Tongue.

First, using rhyming words allows our brains to encode language more easily. This “acoustic encoding“ helps us to understand and remember a word’s sound structure. Alliteration also builds on this, as it helps aid in memory by grouping and association.

Lastly, it can be beneficial to use concrete nouns, or things that we can sense more readily. This is because humans are better at remembering imagery rather than abstract concepts. As we associate the new with the familiar, grounding in the simple and known is beneficial. 

When crafting a narrative, remember the goal is to make something stand out to interrupt the pattern and be remembered. Burnt Tongue offers some interesting tactics to help make this happen.

Author's note, all frameworks are inherently flawed, so apply them wisely. The utility of a framework is always dependent on the individual problem at hand.


Chuck Palahniuk.



Feynman Technique

Feynman Technique