Don't Be a Dick: Get a Dictionary
"Words are, of course, the most powerful drug used by mankind."
― Rudyard Kipling
Words are like drugs . . . for bad writers . . . who use them irresponsibly.
If it's not already obvious, today, we will be talking about words. But not just your run of the mill word usage mistakes, like weak descriptors, overuse of adverbs, or even common homonym blunders. This blog really isn't here to teach you the basics of grammar and composition.
No. We are going to instead focus on word choice as it applies to your authority as a writer. I often speak of authority because it is the key to success. Most of my posts will revolve around building this authority. Gaining important credentials, becoming a trusted voice in your genre, and building an unshakable knowledge base. Authority is key because it gives your readers a reason to trust you. Trust you with their time, their emotions, their money, their love, and loyalty. Without it, your not going to get very far.
Authority is created many ways, like through marketing, appearances, and online presence. But most importantly, through your writing itself.
Language use—more specifically, word choice—is one of the many ways you can build this authority.
Some word choice mistakes are really stupid, bred from a lack of vigilance or care. Other times these problems arise from low confidence in one's writing that leads to overcompensation. Others are a bit more advanced word choice issues that can only be solved through experience.
I'm actually a little sad that I need to write this post. I love the English language. I think its many forms are beautiful and intricate. The thing is, we seem to be losing our vocabulary bit by bit, and those of us who wish to preserve it are often called "Elitist" or "Pompous." But I hold fast to the belief that the correct use of language isn't pretentious, but only seems that way when writers choose to use it incorrectly.
And they often do.
Poor usage is becoming increasingly common, and I have no idea why. You'd think that authors would be learning how to avoid poor word choices with all the information available to them. I mean . . . there is a thesaurus literally only a few finger clicks away. You don't even need to flip through pages or understand the conventions of alphabetical order to use it.
(Or, maybe they are using a thesaurus but don't realize that not all synonyms are interchangeable.)
In spite of all this, authors are making more word choice mistakes. Even traditionally published ones. I think, what is worse, is that editors aren't picking up these mistakes anymore either.
With the large publishing companies continually losing profits, they are having to cut costs in the editing/proofreading departments. I'm pretty sure this is where the problems are coming from (except yours, self-publishers).
But, all this means, is that writers are starting to have to do their due diligence to make sure that their manuscripts are in tip-top shape before they are sent in. Because chances are, small mistakes like word usage problems, might not get caught until it's too late.
And self-publishers, you really, really need to stay on top of the words you type into the computer. Unfortunately, readers are a lot less forgiving of self-published authors then traditionally published ones.
Here are a couple word choice issues you may not be aware of. Let's start with the controversial one.
I do not condone the watering down of one's intelligent writing in hopes of pandering to the first person that yells "Elitist!"
However, there is a difference between an author who uses a word because it is the perfect word and an author who uses a word because it sounds smart. These types of writers are easy to spot. Why? Because 9 times out of 10, the word they use is not the perfect word (or even a good word).
Throughout my career, I have come across sentences, either descriptive or expositive, that attempt to get an idea across to the reader in 25 or more words that would have come across clearer in 10 or less. These writers will often use obscure words, archaic terms, and flowery language that a) the reader probably doesn't understand (or care to), or b) are used in the wrong context.
It is imperative that you know the meaning (in dictionary and in context) of the words you are using, and since we know that, chances are, an editor won't point out advanced usage mistakes to you, you will need to be extra, extra careful of them.
Now, I don't want you thinking you need to "George Orwell" your novels, revising every sentence until it's perfection. I'm not even going to berate you for weak choices of descriptors (big, small, tall, etc.). The real problem arises when the word you choose doesn't mean what you think it means. Or, it does but is so obscure that it becomes meaningless to your reader.
Real pompous words are the ones that make you look like an ass. The readers who don't understand them will resent you, and the readers who do will laugh at you.
Some people call them ten dollar words, but I think that term is misleading. Long words are not the issue (at least not in a literary context). It's the misuse and abuse of long words that it the real problem. Although, many editors, agents, and authors will disagree with me—saying that ALL complex words and terms should be avoided.
I don't believe this to be the case. It's just that soooo many writers, when they try to use them, come off as pompous. But this is the writer's fault, not the word's.
How do you know when you've used a difficult word correctly? The answer is three-fold.
It is the BEST word to use in the context. Meaning that it is precise, there is no room for misinterpretation, and it will allow you to get your point across in FEWER words, not more.
The reader doesn't need to be familiar with the word to understand its meaning. It is obvious in the context of the sentence, and the subject. Imagery supports the term, helping to paint a picture, not erase or replace it.
The word supports the cadence of the text. In short, it doesn't sound out of place.
This talk of meaning brings us to our next mistake.
I'm sure you know where this is going. Have you ever read a passage, finished, and wondered "what the hell did that mean?" Not because the words were hard to understand, but because they had ZERO meaning in context.
It happens all the time. Even with successful authors like Patrick Rothfuss. Don't get me wrong, I love me some Kingkiller Chronicles, but "silence of three parts"...? Really? It's just three things being silent; the silence isn't somehow split equally between them!
Ah! But abstractions are all part of creating the mood and imagery, you say.
You don't need to devote pages to fluffy crap that sounds nice when you can write intelligent prose that has the same tone but actually means something. Preferably, something relevant to the story.
(Sorry, Patrick. I really do love your books though.)
But fluffy abstracts are not the only places writers go wrong. There are also common words like "freedom" and "idealistic" that we use reflexively, not even considering for a moment that a better word might be lurking just around the corner. I'm not telling you to stop using those words. What I'm saying is that, as writers, it's our jobs to make sure that we are being precise with our words.
In some contexts, the word "idealist" might mean less than nothing to our readers. Using it to describe a character is sort of worthless if we have no "ideal" to measure it against. What is an idealist in a world that is entirely made up? That term barely means anything in our reality, let alone a fictional one. What's more, telling us what being an "idealist" means in your world, is going to need yet more words.
Instead, why not find fewer words that have more meaning.
This is a pretty advanced concept, and authors rarely pay attention to these sorts of things. All I ask is that you be efficient with your language. Get ideas across with as few words as possible, and maybe give up altogether on the ones that need qualifiers. The best writers know that there is a single word hiding somewhere that means exactly what they want to say, you just need to uncover it.
I'm going to let you read an excerpt from James M. Barrie's (inventor of the ever-so-famous Peter Pan) novel Sentimental Tommy. Published in 1895, Barrie's character shows the number one trait of a good writer even today. Though you may need to run to the dictionary a few times when reading it :)
His character, Tommy, has just failed at finishing his essay in the allowed time, all because he could not think of the word he wanted to use. He wasted all his time rummaging around in his brain for this ever-elusive word.
"He had brought himself to public scorn for lack of a word. What word? they asked testily; but even now he could not tell. He had wanted a Scotch word that would signify how many people were in church, and it was on the tip of his tongue, but would come no farther. Puckle was nearly the word, but it did not mean so many people as he meant..."
As Tommy's examiners push him for an explanation, the plot thickens...
"[The examiners] were furious..."You little tattie doodle," Cathro roared, "were there not a dozen words to wile from if you had an ill-will to puckle? What ailed you at manzy, or—"
"I thought of manzy," replied Tommy, wofully, for he was ashamed of himself, "but—but a manzy's a swarm. It would mean that the folk in the kirk were buzzing thegither like bees, instead of sitting still."
"Even if it does mean that," said Mr. Duthie, with impatience, "what was the need of being so particular? Surely the art of essay-writing consists in using the first word that comes and hurrying on."
"That's how I did," said the proud McLauchlan [a student who actually finished his essay]...
"I see," interposed Mr. Gloag, "That McLauchlan speaks of there being a mask of people in the church. Mask is a fine Scotch word."
"I thought of mask," whimpered Tommy, "but that would mean the kirk was crammed, and I just meant it to be middling full."
"Flow would have done," suggested Mr. Lorrimer.
"Flow's but a handful," said Tommy.
"Curran, then, you jackanapes!"
"Curran's no enough."
Mr. Lorrimer flung up his hands in despair.
"I wanted something between curran and mask," said Tommy, doggedly, yet almost at the crying.
Mr. Ogilvyy, who had been hiding his admiration with difficulty, spread a net for him. "You said you wanted a word that meant middling full. Well, why did you not say middling full—or fell mask?"
"Yes, why not?" demanded the ministers, unconsciously caught in the net.
"I wanted one word," replied Tommy, unconsciously avoiding it.
"You jewel!" muttered Mr. Ogilvy under his breath....
"It is so easy, too, to find the right word," said Mr. Gloag.
"It's no; it's as difficult as to hit a squirrel," cried Tommy, and again Mr. Ogilvy nodded approval.
A little later, after Tommy had been run out and all were preparing to leave..."the door opened a little and there appeared in the aperture the face of Tommy, tear-stained but excited. "I ken the word now," he cried, "it came to me a' at once; it is hantle!"
And Mr. Ogilvy says happily to himself...."He had to think of it till he got it—and he got it. The ladie is a genius!"
Precision in writing comes with practice. I'm not even close to where I want to be yet professionally. Let's face it; sometimes we just can't manage to say the thing we want to say. All we can do is stay conscious of the words we are using and try our best to improve all the time. Set aside some of your revising/editing time just to refine word choices.
Your readers will appreciate your efforts to provide them as smooth a ride as possible.
Don't doubt their intelligence by dumbing down your work, but also don't go out of your way to put on airs. Don't be afraid to force your reader to head to the dictionary once or twice to look up a word. That's how people learn, but you don't want them doing it so much they can't enjoy the story.
In the end, authenticity rules. Be honest with yourself and your skill. Knowing big words doesn't make you a better writer, but if you express yourself with a larger vocabulary than most, don't let anyone tell you it's not ok. It's your voice. Use it how you will.
Just remember, honest writing builds trust and authority. Don't try to convince the reader that you know more than you do, or attempt to disguise bad writing with obscure words. Readers hate tricks.
That's my two-cents for the day. I hope you got something out of it.