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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The Book Killers: Amateur Covers

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.

In book selling basics, the author attracts the reader and the first page sells the book, but nothing allows a potential reader to disregard a book like an unprofessional cover. The US Review encounters poor book covers on a regular basis: drab, confusing, amateurish designs or some combination of the three. So let’s take a look at book cover basics.

1) The main title should be visible from twenty feet away. This is accomplished through a combination of font, size, and color contrast. A title that is viewable from a distance in a bookstore is as easily read when reduced in size for on-line sales.

2) Title visibility applies to the spine as well. For most of its commercial shelf life, a book will be placed spine out. The title should be as large and as high contrast as possible.

3) Make the subtitle informative. While I’m not a fan of employing subtitles, except for nonfiction, book series, or very short main titles, the subtitle should be essential to the book’s message. Overall, the title and subtitle combination should not be overlong. The best titles are brief—something a typical person can remember and tell another.

4) Don’t forget the back matter. The back of the book is where business takes place. Most retailers won’t sell your book without a standard bar code in the lower right corner or a clearly visible price and genre designation.

5) Keep the book summary to 100 words or less. It’s true. A book can be explained in one short sentence. The New York Times Bestseller List bestseller list has been doing this for decades. Avoid putting a book on the back of a book. (FYI, the author bio is not a back cover essential. While it must be included in the book, it’s easily located on either the last page, inside flap, or back cover.)

6) Gather authoritative endorsements. People want to read quotes regarding the book, but not from the author, publisher, or author’s friends. Build authority for the book with commentary from recognizable experts (i.e. known authors, celebrities, or subject-related practitioners), as well as feedback from professional book review publications.

7) Employ thematic artwork. Artwork that definitively relates to the content describes the book in advance. There is a reason why romances feature a rapturous women and science fiction titles present glossy hi-tech images on their covers. The correct audience is subconsciously drawn to it. Furthermore, the color palette used evokes different emotions. Horror titles make good use of black and red. Young adult romances paint the cover in virginal white and pink. Also, men and women are attracted to different colors for different genres. The psychology of color is an advanced science, which leads us to the final element of cover design.

8) Hire a professional. Most authors are not visual artists, but a professional book designer or even a talented artist should have an innate or trained sense of image and color. Book designers can be contacted through the Internet. At the very least, struggling artists can be found locally. Check their portfolios to see if their work matches the sensibilities of the prospective book. Fees will range from nominal to pricey, but a good cover is worth it. Photoshop’ed self-made covers constructed on the cheap (and often like kindergarten artwork) are easier to spot than a title from twenty feet away, and they will debase the entire book.

The much-used aphorism “You can’t judge a book by its cover” is philosophically correct, but in reality, more people do this than don’t. A great cover sells the book as well as the author sells the book. When considering a cover design, visit a bookstore for trends and ideas within the genre. Taking the time, as well as hiring a professional, gives a book that likely took months if not years to write the jacket and marketing potential it deserves.

Next in The Book Killers series: Inferior Word Choice

Previously in The Book Killers series: Poor Structure

The Book Killers: Bad Grammar

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.

The first mistake that sells out a new writer is bad grammar. Misspelled and misconjugated words, incomplete and malformed sentences, and confusing syntax are the hallmarks of poor editing. The book could be a great concept, but will be considered a fumbling error. For example, a common mistake is to label the foreword section as “Forward” in the heading. An even bigger mistake is to not work with an editor.

Technically speaking, grammar is a set of rules that governs the composition of words and phrases in a language, but, linguistically speaking, proper grammar and its related syntax allow the reader to understand the words on the page. Many emerging writers bend grammar to their own cadence of thought. This is fine for draft work, but it’s a rookie mistake to expect a reader to decode the writer’s thought process. The whole point of reading is to reproduce the writer’s information, imagery, and energy inside the reader’s mind with some semblance of the original thought. The shared rules of grammar and style facilitate this for the widest possible audience. When the reader is forced to decipher the language—most often demonstrated by having to recycle over words and phrases—the reader will likely close the book and move on. A good editor brings another pair of eyes that will identify these deadly mistakes.

Fiction writers are given some elbowroom to stretch the language, but this is best done, and most powerfully so, as an exception to the rule. Nonfiction writers have less leeway. Not only must they write to strict grammar conventions, they must write to the style of the publication, which is a discussion for another time. The US Review of Books, like most publishers of books and articles, uses The Chicago Manual of Style as its standard. The AP Stylebook is used exclusively for article writing, although it is mostly a subset of Chicago. Professional writers have both and use them often. (Tip: The previous edition of both style guides can be purchased at a fraction of the current edition’s cost.) Don’t rely on your editor to catch every detail. The cleaner the manuscript, the more an editor can focus on bigger issues like structure, tone, and overall content.

Self-awareness is a bridge a writer crosses on the way to success. At some point, a writer recognizes his or her flaws and strengths without the prompting of a mentor. Successful writers revise in cycles, ending the process with a close examination of the actual words and phrases, as well as focusing on habitual errors. We are the sum of our vices. It seems that when we conquer one bad habit in our prose, another emerges to take its place. This can change from year to year, book to book, and even article to article. While writing, build a checklist for editing, and end revisions with a review of this list.

With so many books being published each year (i.e. approximately one million annually in the U.S. alone), it’s difficult to bring attention to a single book. Bad grammar is the great crippler at the starting gate for many self-published and first-time authors. Remember to learn the rules of grammar, have a reference guide at the ready, be wary of bad habits, work with an experienced editor, and give your manuscript one last review.

Next in The Book Killers series: Poor Structure

Professional Revisions – Executing the Process

In this series, editor and author Christopher Klim takes you through a multi-level approach to revising your work. Excerpts taken from bestselling Write to Publish: Essentials for the Modern Fiction and Memoir Market.

All fine writing is the result of rewriting. I don’t know who coined that phrase, but it is certainly a fact. The first draft is the art of writing. The revision process exists to recognize mistakes and mop up the mess, and readers never witness the accident. Readers seek the ease of flawlessness.

EXECUTING REVISIONS

The four level revision process in Write to Publish a top down approach. Work the levels in iterations. Be comfortable with the work at one level, before moving onto the next. This builds the structure of the story before fixing the mess wrought by the construction. It also saves time. Why perfect a scene or paragraph that might not remain in the finished version? Upon passing from level two to three, a solid story stands in place. All scenes will remain on the story line and in their current position. It is now a matter of making them resonate in the reader’s mind.

A story is a unique creation, requiring a special effort to complete. During the draft process, pause to make note of ideas, weaknesses, and potential areas of research. I record story ideas and research information in a composition book. I also number revision concerns from the last page toward the front. I fill six to ten pages of notes on grammar, theme, tone, research requirements, and other specific story concerns. These are concrete problems, and I won’t slow the momentum of the draft to solve them. I might use too many passive verbs or fudge the details of an unfamiliar profession. Bad habits and the assumption of guesswork as fact are two comfortably dangerous behaviors, but the back of my composition book saves me, detailing my story’s shortcomings. It holds a checklist of needed revisions.

While good draft work is often brave and ground-breaking, the revision process requires another kind of courage. It is akin to self-surgery, knowing when to amputate one of your limbs. Be ruthless with your prose. If a word, sentence, scene, or chapter doesn’t serve the story, lop it off. It might contain the most brilliant prose of the piece, but it is cancer to the story, driving it off course and killing reader interest. Save it for another day. It might form the centerpiece of a new story. Trust your ability to think of even better words down the line.

SOLICITING FEEDBACK

There comes a point when a writer desires objectivity. Cultivate a trusted reader. I have a target reader in mind when I write, someone who appreciates the same aspects of storytelling. She knows when I miss the mark, and she is not afraid to tell me. I argue. I curse and moan, but in the end, I know she is right. She is not a writer. She is a reader. She doesn’t stay up at night considering character flaws or lifestyle element. She knows a good story. She laughs. She cries. She is entertained, and if I cannot do this for her, I have missed my objective.

Beyond that, build a reading circle. This is also com-posed of readers. Writers are a dangerous group to critique a work in progress. Each writer has a personal vision of a story, and it is often not yours. Good members of a reading circle are well read. They are just as happy with a biography of FDR, as the latest Robert Stone. They pick up TV Guide and The Economist in the same shopping trip. They love the written word. They are authorities to give the thumbs up or down on your work. They are a mere sample of the reading public. Try to remove your emotion and listen to them.

WHEN IS A STORY FINISHED?

Who knows? There comes a time when a writer must put the work down and move on. Writers often get a brain-storm and return to a particular piece with ideas to elevate the story, but overall, a point arrives when the writer can go no further and must let it rest on its laurels.

For my first published novel, I accepted countless pieces of advice from editors and agents, tweaking each nuance of the story. I reached a point where I was changing sentences because I was tired of reading the same lines over and over. I’d clearly spent too long with the story. I finally threw my hands up and told my writing mentor that I was finished accepting the often inane feedback leveled on my novel. An amazing thing happened. It was a moment out of a grainy kung fu movie. “Son,” my mentor said. “You’re ready to go to the next level.”

When the work is as good as it can be, move on. Begin another story. Hope for enlightenment, but learn when to quit spinning your wheels. If Michelangelo sought perfection – and he was darn near perfect in his art – he’d have chipped away at the statue of David, until it was small enough to clip on a key chain.

Finally, be patient with your talent at its current level. If you aspire to improve, you will sacrifice and work every day. You will get better. You will tell the stories you want to tell. Great artists learn to work in a vacuum, producing ideal works of art that hold a mirror to humanity, society, and themselves. Be brave.

EXERCISES

Outline your revision process. What do your talents require? Are you concentrating on your weaknesses? Can the ordinary be elevated?

Resurrect your old writing and run it through the aforementioned revision process. If the work is old enough, certain flaws will immediately stand out. See if the process doesn’t improve the story structure and prose.

Transpose a favorite writer’s passage to paper. Observe the sentence structure, pacing, and word selection.

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.

Previous: Professional Revisions – Level Four: Presentation

Professional Revisions – Level Four: Presentation

In this series, editor and author Christopher Klim takes you through a multi-level approach to revising your work. Excerpts taken from bestselling Write to Publish: Essentials for the Modern Fiction and Memoir Market.

All fine writing is the result of rewriting. I don’t know who coined that phrase, but it is certainly a fact. The first draft is the art of writing. The revision process exists to recognize mistakes and mop up the mess, and readers never witness the accident. Readers seek the ease of flawlessness.

LEVEL FOUR: PRESENTATION

With the hardest work in place, take time to examine the basics of language, before submitting your work to agents and editors. Mistakes in this category should never occur, but too often I receive student prose with grammar and spelling errors. Solid presentation separates you as a professional writer in every form of the medium, from advertising copy to fine literature. Make a habit of presenting clean copy.

Basic Order

Put stimulus and response in the proper order. The following is out of order.

Joe hit the ground, hearing the explosion.

Organize phrases and sentences in order of occurrence. The following sentence is out of order.

Joe won the race, after he filled out the entry application.

Build lists in order of increasing importance or impact. Without intending to be outrageous, the following is out of order.

Joe had a pretty bad year. His dog died. His wife left him. His computer caught fire. His mail arrived at the wrong address, and he stubbed a toe.

The passage suggests that Joe’s priorities are clearly out of whack. If this isn’t the case, the story must present a reasonable justification for Joe’s thinking.

Grammar

Obtain The Elements of Style by Strunk and White, and memorize the first eleven rules. The English language is sinking into a lexicon of paraphrases, slang, buzzwords, and acronyms. Soon you will be one of the few remaining people who can still write and speak the language.

Spelling

Most of us work on a computer with a word processor. It is easy to check spelling. Don’t get caught with spelling errors, or you will appear as if you didn’t care enough to proofread your words. When in doubt, consult a dictionary. Computers won’t catch ‘bear’ when you meant to use ‘bare.’

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.

Next: Professional Revisions – Executing the Process

Previous: Professional Revisions – Level Three: Style

Professional Revisions – Level Three: Style

In this series, editor and author Christopher Klim takes you through a multi-level approach to revising your work. Excerpts taken from bestselling Write to Publish: Essentials for the Modern Fiction and Memoir Market.

All fine writing is the result of rewriting. I don’t know who coined that phrase, but it is certainly a fact. The first draft is the art of writing. The revision process exists to recognize mistakes and mop up the mess, and readers never witness the accident. Readers seek the ease of flawlessness.

LEVEL THREE: STYLE

When the story line is set and the character and setting details are brought into focus, concentrate on prose. A writer’s style of storytelling is evident from the beginning of the tale’s construction. It is an extension of his brain and the way he absorbs and interprets the world around him. With the arc of the story set, it is time to clarify the prose, as only he can do it.

Establish Consistent Tone

Tone refers to the quality and pitch of the prose. It is the emotional resonance of the story, albeit humorous, horrifying, or dramatic. Whatever the tone, search for inconsistent passages that sabotage the integrity of the story.

Simplify Sentence Structure

Always look to prune and clarify sentences. Be concise. One powerful phrase might replace a few fuzzier statements. At times, writers struggle for an exact description, circling the point with a collection of words. Take a moment to uncover the precise description in one brief phrase.

Vary Sentence Structure

The length and construction of sentences serve different purposes. Action scenes require crisp short sentences to maintain the pace. Long sentences serve panoramic scenes or deep introspection. Poetic phrases work for romance and comedy. See what works for your scenes. Play with the sentence structure.

Vary Paragraph, Scene, and Chapter Length

Changes keep readers attentive. Blocks of paragraphs of equal length create a visual monotony. I am getting sleepy just thinking about it. The same goes for scene and chapter lengths. Try a scene that is only one paragraph long or a chapter of just two pages. Search for variety.

Examine Word Choice

Root out vagueness. Replace words like something, anything, and everything with concrete nouns.

The thing about dessert is the calories.

The problem with dessert is the calories.

Select strong verbs. Replace verbs like was, is, would, should, and could with powerful and engaging verbs.

He was at the top of the corporate ladder, but he would rather be home with his family.

He fought his way to the top of the corporate ladder, but he missed his family at home.

Too many adjectives? Change noun and adjective combinations into one strong noun.

Tom drove the thin nail into the orange-yellow skin of the fruit.

Tom drove the brad into the ocher skin of the fruit.

Too many adverbs? Change verb and adverb combi-nations into one strong verb.

She slowly walked into the boardroom.

She sauntered into the boardroom.

Reduce compound descriptions. Use discrete words that relay the point. Observe the following passage:

A small, deep purple 3×5 note arrived in the mail. Joe recognized his former wife’s handwriting. She wanted him to return their children. She was coming to visit in a few days.

The passage might sound better as:

Joe’s ex-wife dropped him a maroon postcard: ‘I want the kids back. See you soon.’

Find the right word. Employ a thesaurus and dictionary. The appropriate word is out there for the taking.

Remove ‘said’ and ‘thought’

The person thinking or speaking in a story is often implied by his position in the text. Be creative. Use action or narration alongside the thought or dialogue to identify its owner. In the following example, use of  the words ‘said’ and ‘thought’ are unnecessary to identify Jane as the person doing the speaking and thinking.

Jane took the horse by the reins. “Git!” She dug in her spurs. I hope this old mare’s got enough left to make it.

Remove Instances of “Fine Writing”

Track down instances of fine writing and remove them. Fine writing occurs during wonderfully unnatural stretches of prose. It might be the flowery description of the chipped table in the office or the overblown insight to the human condition. When the writer pens these lines at 3 A.M., they often appear brilliant, but when they hit daylight, they are exposed like a pink bowtie. They are funny and overdone, when they intend otherwise. Readers will roll their eyes because the writer is trying too hard to impress.

Read Aloud

Reading the prose aloud identifies errant and clumsy passages. The writer stumbles over poor words, phrases, and sentences. Unnatural dialogue hits the ear like a spitball. Read your work aloud within the safe confines of your working space before exposing your errors to the public.

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.

Next: Professional Revisions – Level Four: Presentation

Previous: Professional Revisions – Level Two: Struture/Content

US Review of Books - Book Reviews

Selected Poems: 1968-2014

by Paul Muldoon
Farrar, Strauss and Giroux

reviewed by Christopher Klim

“A corduroy road on the quag kept me on the straight and narrow.”

In a collection that spans a lifetime, Paul Muldoon’s selected works reveals the evolution of a poet who achieved multiple honors including the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry. While many poets lock themselves into a particular style or gradual, organic ascent, Muldoon is known for major shifts in approach between collections, spanning a deft if not eclectic combinations of technique and form. While thoroughly a modern poet, his work anchors in the past, covering family origin, landscape, language, and bygone eras of society and the mind. In the reading, it is clearly Muldoon throughout the years in his charm and understated wit that flies so low on the radar it could be missed, more likely absorbed in reflection.

This book is organized by metered selections from his published collections and presented in chronological order. This is key to understanding the poet. Never before could his readers so clearly mark the years of his life in presentation and content. From “Cuba”…

With the world at war, if not at an end.’
My father was pounding the breakfast-table.

to “The Sonogram”…

Only a few weeks ago the sonogram of Jean’s womb
resembled nothing so much
as a satellite map of Ireland.

through the Pulitzer-prizewinning “Redknots”…

The day our son is due is the very day
the redknots are meant to touch down
on their long haul
from Chile to the Arctic Circle

and touching down for awhile in “A Hare at Aldergrove”…

A hare standing up at least on his own two feet
in the blasted grass by the runway may trace his lineage to the great
assembly of hares that, in the face of what might well have looked like defeat,
would, in 1963 or so, migrate
here from the abandoned airfield at Nutt’s Corner, not long after Marilyn Monroe
overflowed from her body stocking
in Something’s Got to Give…

and again as a way of final example in “Cuba (2)”…

The Riviera’s pool is shaped like a coffin.
So much has been submerged since the Bay of Pigs.
Maybe that’s why the buildings are wrinkled?
Maybe that’s why the cars have fins?

…his prose changes from inward reflection to an outward understanding of the world, and its structure expands to semi-epic proportion.

At times, the poet is accused of archaic or confounding world selection. Sure enough his lines deliver necessary pause. In the noise of today’s megalomaniacal output of information and predominantly tripe, we struggle to hear the authentic voices of our philosophers and poets. Muldoon asks us to slow down and hear the story. He is a generational poet of importance, at times reflecting the nonsensical thinking of our times, but he delivers significance with inspiring insight that comes upon you slowly in the way that you remember what is being said.

Kudos goes to the editor, who might be the poet himself, operating as a sort of curator for this retrospective. But let’s not bury Muldoon just yet. I’m sure he’s busy game-changing his prose in a new collection for the senses and thought.

RECOMMENDED by the US Review