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Monday, May 7, 2012

What's In A Word?


Words. I’m an editor who make a living deleting, adding, correcting, and manipulating words. For writers. Writers make a living, or try to, by writing words. But what’s in the words they use? What makes an arrangement of certain words the “award-winning prose” and another something that makes people cringe? 
If writers are serious about their craft, they should be extremely particular about the words they use. The choice of words can change the entire feel of the book. It’s so sad to see some just butchering English. While there are newbies who’ve yet to master the skills, there are stubborn writers who refuse to change, even when they know they’re wrong. Those people are inexcusable, and they are a lost cause for me, so I’m not going to waste a blog post on them. Also, I’m getting tired of arguing with them on Twitter. This post is for the newbies or those willing to learn and change.
This year alone, I’ve worked with 17 writers or authors, and 8 were writers I met through Twitter. Regardless of where I met them, there is a common theme among the newbie writers. Their word usage. Too often, writers feel the need to make their books sophisticated and intelligent by using overtly technical and rarely used words. That is fine if the subject of a book calls for such language and the words are used correctly. But when they’re wrong, their attempts to appear as experienced writers actually backfire and make them look amateurish. 
Think I’m being harsh? Maybe. I’m trying to be helpful. It really bothers me when words that don’t belong in a book just pop up out of nowhere. Those words don’t add anything to the story and change the flow of the writing all together. The words used in a book must fit the genre, time, setting, and the voice of the characters. You wouldn’t have an “average” 8-year-old character thinking to himself “I can’t quite articulate today’s impetuous shift in the climate, but my body will acclimate,” would you? Or would you use popular vocabulary from the last century in a futuristic science fiction? Also, the writers often end up using a wrong word because they assumed the word meant one thing, but, in fact, the word meant something quite opposite. 
And the trend is getting uglier. Blame the lack of quality education in this century. The use of slangs, abbreviations, and non standard words in literature is growing. No, I will not get into another argument over all right vs. alright, but as told in this excellent blog post, writers should know better. As stated in that post and in my tweet, just because the word is in the dictionary and is commonly used, it doesn't mean it belongs in a book. Come on, writers. Your books are not emails to your friends or a casual blog post. They’re professional products and should be treated as such. Remember the advice below.
Know the definition of every, single word you use in your book. 
Ensure the words are standard and acceptable for professional writing.
Ensure they fit the voice of your characters or the narrator. 
Ensure they are readable and can be easily understood by your target audience.
Use every word with intent and give it purpose.


Here are 6 rules on clear writing taken from George Orwell's famous essay, Politics and English Language. I strongly recommend it to every writer.

1. Never use a metaphor, simile, or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print.
2. Never use a long word where a short one will do.
3. If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out.
4. Never use the passive where you can use the active.
5. Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word, or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent.
6. Break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous.

You’re a writer. You have to mean and be responsible for every word you write. Have pride in your craft. Lastly, I want to leave you with this quote because it has always been my favorite. And it also fits this topic.
“You don’t need a dictionary to read Hemingway.”

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