Wednesday, July 3, 2013

Vocabulary and Writing

Recently, a friend of mine forwarded me a link to the following article on archaic words that linger, vestigially, in our modern usage (the article is here).  After enjoying the piece and thinking of some other random and "one shot" words -- words that only occur in a set phrase, I started thinking about vocabulary more broadly.

In fact, this has been on my mind for a while, ever since Revolutionary went through copy-editing. During those rounds of revision, a copy-editor pointed out that I tended to write "amongst" and "midst" which were deemed "archaic" forms.  I hadn't noticed that before, and I went back to short stories and other pieces I had written.  Indeed, amongst and midst cropped up there as well.  Then I paid attention to my speech... and found that I spoke these words (and others on the archaic list).

All this made me think about what language stands out.  I believe that the goal of the copy-editor is to make the writing smooth, in the sense that no word draws the reader out of the story or makes them say, "what?"  Of course, you don't want to be confusing, but more than that, you want the words you write to fit the texture -- the soundscape -- of the story.

Linking to characterization, all characters should use vocabulary that fits their personality; that's an essential of voice.  But more than that, the narrative voice, the way in which setting and scene are described, should be clear, consistent, and, well, I guess like wall-paper: it's there, and it makes the room look nicer, but, after a while, you forget it's there.

So here's my question to you, dear reader... where do you stand on quirky vocabulary?  Do you every drop that strange word into a story?  Do you do that because it is the right word for that moment?  Or because you just like the word?

I once had a character going for a walk after a rain and enjoying that mineral smell that comes up from the sidewalk. The word for that smell is petrachore -- I love both that smell and that word -- and I had my character use it.  When the story was accepted for publication, the editor X-ed "petrachore" out.  I wrote back: but it's the right word!  Answer: maybe, but no one will know what it means.

That is the point of vocabulary... to communicate and express clearly.  I've had (and taught with) English teachers on both sides of the spectrum, those who say "don't use a dime word when a nickel word will do" and those who preach that you should "dress your words from Saks."

These days, I tend to former.  Simple, direct -- the best word for the moment.  It's just that, sometimes, the best word is a little dressy.

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