Friday, February 5, 2010

In Which I Exhort

I was a nerdy little kid. Well, correctly put, I was an extremely bookish little kid. I read constantly, almost compulsively. I regularly got into trouble for reading during class or taking books to places where books didn't belong.

As a result, I had developed a fairly chunky vocabulary by about third grade. I knew most of the little words, and lots of the big ones, too. The problem is, when you're a third grade boy, and you're already known for sitting in a corner with a novel, having a big vocabulary is NOT a good thing. You get questions like, "Why do you use so many big words?" And, "You just use a lot of big words to show off." Or, "What are you talking about?"

No kid likes to attract that kind of attention, or at least I didn't, so I can actually remember making a conscious decision to use fewer big words. And to swear more. Lots more (that part I liked). Pretty soon I could swear like a marine, and by sixth grade, I like to think that you could have talked to me and never known I'd read a book in my entire life.

Now that I'm an adult, I still have echoes of this. I still cringe sometimes when I hear a three-dollar word creep out. I know this doesn't make sense completely—people tend to appreciate well-spoken adults, and they sort of expect writers to be word-nerds—but it's a lingering effect from being the bookish kid.

But on paper ... now that's a whole different ballgame. I'm a total word hound, and when I say I'm editing, what that means is I'm usually combing the book looking to replace and upgrade single words. See, I believe in precision, especially in verbs. I believe very strongly that there is a world of difference between "crying out" and "yelling" and "screaming." And sometimes people lope, while other times they jog, and yet still other times they might run or sidle. And I believe IT MATTERS which one they actually do—these aren't synonyms. (Don't even get me started on the whole idea of thesauri ...)

I respect writers who choose their words carefully, and I'm almost instantly bored by prose that lacks any specificity of description. As a reader, I can almost feel the writer casting around, spilling whole paragraphs while they look for the right few words. Sometimes it's sloppy editing, sometimes lazy writing, and other times it's just a lack of vocabulary. Even in simple books, aimed at children, I think word choice matters a great deal.

I'm afraid this might sound elitist, but I really don't mean it like that. After all, I'm the kid who taught myself to avoid big words.... To me, this a craft question, and this has everything to do with how good you are and how good you can be. If I was a brick layer, I'd want to know all the kinds of brick available. If I was a painter, I'd want to know every shade of white I could memorize. So as a writer, there should be a hunger to know every word (impossible, of course) and a willingness to spend time looking for just that perfect one.

So you see, I'm not really ranting. I'm exhorting.


Mark Terry said...

I intentionally try to choose the simpler word, particularly in that I write so much nonfiction about clinical diagnostics, biotechnology, and medicine. Physicians and PhDs get rather hooked into their jargon just for the hell of it, and if ever there was a word that should be cast into the Sacrificial Fires of the Editing Gods, it's "armamentarium."

LurkerMonkey said...

Armamentarium ... bwaa haa haa! I've always gotten a kick out of the pseudomilitaristic overtones of the word. As if doctors are sitting around saying, "Sir, permission requested to strafe that pneumonia!"

Erica Orloff said...

I am exactly like you. And I was with a friend the other day and in casual conversation used machination. She laughed, "I don't believe I have ever heard that term in casual use." Also love the word exponential. Just love it.


LurkerMonkey said...

Exponential is a great word. You know what other word is awesome? Extemporaneous. What word is LESS like what it means? There's nothing random or spontaneous about extemporaneous as a word at all.

Melanie Avila said...

I have a hard time remembering specific definitions of some words, so rather than be that person who uses them wrong, I tend to talk more simply. That said, every now and then a ten-dollar word pops out of my mouth in casual conversation and surprises me. :)

LurkerMonkey said...

I'm imagining you with this shocked look on your face and a word like "hornswaggled" lying at your feet ... because everyone knows that hornswaggled is a ten-dollar word.

Jude Hardin said...

I believe in choosing the right word, but usually that word is the simplest one possible. The simplest one, that is, that achieves the desired effect.

In fiction, especially, you don't want everything to start feeling as though you're performing. It should flow with a certain rhythm, and the vocabulary should be consistent with that of the POV character.

But even if you're character is, say, a nuclear physicist, I would avoid using too much technical jargon, which can be quite conducive to somnolence. :)

LurkerMonkey said...

I guess it depends on what you're trying to accomplish. I get the feeling that lots of authors believe their audiences are simpletons and write down to them.

There's a thing going on in adult thrillers especially, where authors are writing books for adults but pitching them at the level of a fourth grader. With teensy little words, tiny little paragraphs, and eensy little chapters. Sure, it might be interesting for a book or so ... but then it just ... gets ... boring. What's the fun in reading a full novel in 45 minutes? Even their nuclear physicists talk like robo-cliches from planet Bad Movie. "Dr. Hardknockers, we're dealing with a code-red core meltdown!"

I agree you have to stay true to the MC, and I don't believe in using big words for the sake of it. But I strongly believe in precision in prose. Cormac McCarthy is a perfect example. His prose is lean but so descriptive. Every word is placed just so. It's evocative, and that's what matters to me much more than anything else. Like you said, it's about the desired effect.

And I love watching a master prose stylist perform ... I have no idea why you'd want to discourage that! Maybe that kind of writing just doesn't work for you.

Jude Hardin said...

Faulkner said of Hemingway's work that it would never send anyone to the dictionary. It was meant as criticism, but I think it was a compliment. To me, the greatest stylists are the ones where the prose seems effortless, almost invisible. And yes, McCarthy is a perfect example.

P.S: I sent my February story to your email address. Did you get it?

LurkerMonkey said...

That's funny about Faulker and Hemingway ... I'm a big Hemingway fan. Faulkner, not so much. When Hemingway was informed of Faulkner's jab, he responded:

"Poor Faulkner. Does he really think big emotions come from big words? He thinks I don't know the ten-dollar words. I know them all right. But there are older and simpler and better words, and those are the ones I use."

But what I find most interesting, going back, is how complicated Hemingway's prose actually could be, especially by the standards of some of today's books. There are whole sections of For Whom the Bell Tolls that border on lyrical.

And yeah, I got your story. Thanks. We're starting next week ...

Merry Monteleone said...

Even in simple books, aimed at children, I think word choice matters a great deal.

Amen, and thank you. I notice a lot of writers new to childrens books, and possibly a good deal of these are not actually writers but parents who have an idea, think this is easy. It's just a children's book.

I think they're deceptively difficult. It's not only using the right words, but the right rhythm, while bringing a child into the story and NOT speaking down to him/her. It looks easy when it's well done. Not easy. And the shorter the length, the more difficult I think it actually is... Every. Word. Matters.

I stay completely away from picture book and lower grade reader for this reason - I just don't have the skill with the rhythm of the language for that age bracket. It comes out cheesy or sing-songy and I know it. There's an art to it.

And I love all different types of voices. I think the main thing is sticking in your characters' mindset, you don't want your drug addled derelict spouting Shakespeare, unless maybe he was a literary scholar before his drug induced downfall and it's part of his character eccentricity...

I love books that drip like poetry, and the wording is so evocative that you breathe it in and hate to leave it.. and I also love when it's so sparse and simple that you forget you're reading and the author disappears entirely because the characters and story are all that matter... I think different writers find their strengths in different places.

My academic writing runs in lyrical two dollar words - it doesn't work for my fiction and I still have a hard time weeding it out and sticking to the mc.

LurkerMonkey said...


I couldn't agree more about children's books being deceptively difficult. There IS such a thing as a great kid's book, and you know it when you read it.

And lol about the drug-addled Shakespeare professor.