The Book Killers: Weak Point of View

The Book Killers: Inferior Word Choice

In this ongoing series, Christopher Klim, author and senior editor of the US Review of Books, takes a look at common errors that undermine books.

A weak vocabulary is exposed not only by the range of words used, but also by their poor application within a sentence. In both fiction or nonfiction, strong word choices reveal a skilled writer. Word choices show the author’s character and talent, but mostly his or her level of discipline. Let’s investigate areas of concern, including examples of inferior word choices.

Invented Words

Demonstrating the worst abuse of language, lazy writers invent words that do not exist. Other writers hyphenate ridiculous combinations of words rather than construct a more intelligent sentence or employ the single word that relates a similar meaning.

Jane went on a date with Bill, irregardless of his past. (Not only is irregardless not a real word, it is no different in use or meaning than regardless.)

Because he was crazy-excited, Bill advance-planned for his date with the super-good-looking Jane. (A writer with a fifth grade vocabulary might say: Nervous, Bill prepared for his date with Jane, the beauty.)

Misused Words

When a word is misused, the writer either doesn’t understand its meaning or is working with an alternate definition so far down the dictionary that no one but an experienced linguist understands how it applies. The wrong word choice misleads the reader and creates absurd results. Some word choices fall out of context, running askew of the narrative or theme of the book.

Jane delineates that Bill will make a suitable companion. (Jane seems like a real warm and cozy person.)

The caveman chased the mastodon like a bus at rush hour. (This caveman appears to possess the ability to time travel.)

The coffee table size book fits nicely in any collection. (That giant book will fit in no collection.) 

Ambiguous Words

Many words are meant to be vague, and a number of reasons exist for employing them, not the least of which is diplomacy. Good writing shuns diplomacy, displaying the courage of precision whether it disturbs the reader or not. On the other hand, ambiguity summons boredom.

Jane realized that Bill had an unpleasing smell. (Does Jane like stinky men or not?) 

Bill would prefer not to deal with Jane ever again. (Bill is so boring that she’ll forever avoid him.)

Clichés

We’ve all heard clichés and used them too many times. This is how they become cliché—tired, overwrought words and expressions. While conversation tolerates this fault, a written work attempts to inform and illuminate through saliency. By the way, repetition—using the same words over and over, no matter what the words are—create a self-contained cliché within a narrative.

The next time Bill saw Jane, he would give her a piece of his mind. (If this were a horror story, it might actually turn out to be interesting)

Jane was really steamed at Bill’s attitude. (Jane is apparently angry, but we fell asleep during her narrative.)

Jargon and Slang

Like dialect, jargon and slang add color to a book, but when the terms are esoteric or regional, their meanings can be obfuscated. Furthermore, too much jargon or slang make the narrative appear like an alternate language. Unless it is essential to the story, avoid this whenever possible. Instead, sprinkle colloquialisms and obtuse terms into the narrative, and the reader will gather its flavor while comprehending the actual meaning.

In full techie-mode, Bob found the SIMM and gave the SOB gizmo another reboot before 86’ing it altogether. (Translated: Bob found the missing memory card and restarted the hateful computer, longing to dump it in the ocean.)

Weak Verbs and Nouns

Journeyman writers activate weak verbs (i.e. is, was, had, be, are, etc.) wherever possible by replacing them with powerful and specific choices. Unfortunately, some writers remedy this by arranging verbs and adverbs, as well as nouns and adjectives, into shotgun marriages on the page. Still others assemble them like boxcars extending for miles. This wordiness prompts readers to skim the page. Collapse these combinations into precise verbs and nouns to gain a tighter and more lucid sentence.

The small, soft, and squishy Mediterranean citrus with loose skin had briefly wobbled on the edge of the stairs before it quickly bounced along the steps and stopped at the base near the front door with a forceful bang. (Revised: The overripe Clementine teetered and then skipped downstairs, crashing into the entrance.)

In Conclusion

The previous suggestions all boil down to cogency—being clear, logical, and convincing. Great word choices ring so true that they go unquestioned, achieving deeper meaning within the narrative. During the revision and editing process, writers scrutinize word choices for exactness, so that the truth of their sentences appeals to the reader. A master writer develops a control system (i.e. a vocabulary relating to the character, scene, and theme) that supplies a language for the reader to understand a particular book, and this changes from book to book. However, that is a discussion for another time.

Next in The Book Killers series: Stilted Writing 

Previously in The Book Killers series: Amateur Covers

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Know What You Write

Every once in a while the following advice pops up in blogs and at writers’ conferences like a bad rash.

Write what you know.

What uninspired genius devised this rule? It wasn’t a writer of fiction. If authors heeded those words, the balance of modern literature might encompass little more than travel logs, odes to typewriters and keyboards, and tours of every gin mill in the country. Let’s face it. We don’t do much else. Tom Clancy was an insurance salesman. That would make a gripping action-packed thriller: Broker Bob Jones is hot on the trail of client Donna Smith. Can he get her to sign a life insurance policy before the monthly quota statements?

Consider the authors of great novels. Was Tom Clancy a Russian submarine commander? Was Thomas Harris a genius cannibal? Was Ralph Ellison an invisible man? I don’t think so, but they did the research and wrote from those viewpoints with confidence and style. It is better to say ‘know what you write.’ That makes more sense.

When it comes to choosing your story details, you are only limited by research and the depth of your determination to uncover the details. What interests you? Go after it. Submerse yourself if necessary. We live in the Information Age with access to people and data like never before. It’s so easy that you can become lazy if you aren’t careful.

And how do you research being an invisible man? Observe anyone handing out flyers on a street corner.

Christopher Klim is the author of several books including the novel, Idiot!, and the short collection, True Surrealism. He is currently working on a novel trilogy about the space program past, present, and future—and his control system for each will be firmly established.

When Writing, Know Your Control System

Like the cockpit of the space shuttle or even the thermostat in your residence, a written piece has specific parameters to guide it successfully. If a cockpit needs airspeed and attitude controls to maintain flight, then a written piece requires unique methodology to garner truth. Not only does the terminology need to be established, it also needs to be consistent and replete throughout the piece. Careless, mixed, or wandering terminology undermines the entire work.

The concept of a control system in writing inevitably drills down to word choice. A writer must be aware of the words, phrasing, and cadence associated with a specific passage, as well as the entire piece. If the passage involves quick action or comedy, the sentence structure tends to be short, even blunt. If the scene takes place inside a military installation, acronyms will flow through both the dialogue and exposition. If the scene takes place in history, the words selected will match the time period.

Consider the following passage from a prehistoric age genre novel: The clan leader leapt from the bushes and came down upon the beast like a bus at rush hour. This type of metaphor happens more often than one might imagine and in subtle, less obvious ways. When digesting the aforementioned sentence, the reader understands that the clan leader was moving quickly and heavily upon the beast, but the reader is also jarred from the time period by the writer’s unfortunate out-of-time-period metaphor. If the clan leader were waiting for a bus at rush hour, he’d be waiting a very long time.

The control system selected for a piece will be pervasive, extending beyond the obvious passages. One of the joys of reading is to enter the mind of the characters on the page. If that character is a professional diver, his/her actions and viewpoint on life will be reflective of the sea and perhaps the constant dangers he’s exposed to. Even in relationships with others, that character will measure people against what he knows—brooding dark waters, a relentless shark, or the fanciful circus of a coral reef—otherwise that character will be acting out of his/her own control system. Even if that character is a mad, unpredictable genius, he will be guided, and therefore described, by a specific set of parameters using the precise words to delineate his actions or speech. And all of this will be moderated by the overarching terminology of the entire work.

Establishing and employing the proper control system establishes both authenticity and confidence in writing, and it requires a level of detail that many journeyman writers either overlook or fail to do the research and editing required. Study any master writer—a real master writer, not a self-proclaimed master bestseller on the Internet—and uncover the details of the control system established for a specific work. Once you’ve put in the effort, you’ll find yourself reaching for the correct dialogue and descriptions that fit the piece.

Christopher Klim is the author of several books including the novel, Idiot!, and the short collection, True Surrealism. He is currently working on a novel trilogy about the space program past, present, and future—and his control system for each will be firmly established.

 

 

The Art and Necessity of Writing Longhand

Publishing barriers have collapsed, and most of the stigma of self-publishing has been erased. Even the act of writing has become easier. The personal computer, which helped launch the Information Age, allows for the accelerated gathering and storing of information. A writer can compose a book for publication in months or even weeks.

I shuddered when a bestselling author in the mid-twentieth century described penciling-in changes on typewritten pages and then retyping each page for the publisher whenever necessary. Moreover, the initial draft was probably written in longhand. The time and labor involved in composing a book had once taken years, but the finished product was undeniably a solid manuscript. Today, the wonderful tools that help a writer to type, revise, and copyedit a manuscript in a fraction of the time have produced the most rushed prose known to human history.

Hardly anyone wants to write an entire draft in longhand or return to the typewriter days, but how can the thoughtfulness of the past be recaptured in a modern manuscript? For books and feature-length articles, it helps to keep a written journal that contains both research and narrative fragments at the very least. While there are many approaches to journaling, let’s take a look at few at its benefits.

A journal is a file cabinet for research. As information is gathered, even for works of fiction, it is difficult to know what will be used in the final manuscript, but it is certain that most of it will not. A journal guarantees that the right information will be saved.

The writer’s notebook holds ideas for the outline, narrative, or plot. During the initial draft, it is difficult to know the correct direct of a longer work. Even if a faulty path is taken, better options might be saved within a journal for subsequent revisions.

A journal provides time for burning off emotional energy in a place separate from the first draft. Emotions are not logic, and even works of fiction require sound construction. While emotional prose resonates on the page, false narratives compromise the entire book. Giving emotions time to settle in a journal allows the writer to cull authenticity from the feelings.

The mere act of writing adds a physical dimension, which extends back to the collapse of the Third Ming Dynasty when the first writers were born from unemployed scribes. This is our legacy and should never be forgotten. It takes much longer to write on paper than banging words into a computer. As a result, computer drafts are often flabby and wandering, but when committing potential words to paper (words that are not so easily deleted), writers pause to consider the correct language and exact word choices. (If you are doubting the increased care and consideration that attends the act of writing, consider typing a birthday greeting for a friend inside an e-mail and then consider writing it inside a card to be mailed.)

Author Robert McPhee says it takes him three years to compose a book: one for research, another for organizing, and another for writing. Obviously a lot of thinking goes into each of his books, and it shows. He is an award-winning writer and multiple Pulitzer finalist. It clearly pays to consider thinking about your words more carefully by using a journal.

Christopher Klim is the senior editor of the US Review and the author of several books including True Surrealism and Idiot!. During a plane flight, he used a journal to outline and annotate this article.

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