Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Tales from the Editor's Desk - Use the right words

Sometimes we forget we’re writing to read people who will be reading our books. We start writing writing. We dig into the thesaurus for synonyms. We stick in big words because they seem impressive.

Back when I was in high school—I used to tell my students that Shakespeare was still writing when I was in college (but some of them started believing me)—I belonged to the creative writing club. I was the only member who had a new story or essay for every single meeting. One of my sophomoric inspirations was to write a story about a woman living up in, say, Alaska who was all alone in her house. And there were prowlers outside. Trying to get in. They tell us to write what we know. I was a St. Louis girl; what did I know from women alone in houses in Alaska? Well, I had a good imagination, so I went for it. Most of the story was interior monologue, so I also went for the thesaurus. The woman narrating the story wasn’t speaking aloud; she was thinking, reflecting, cogitating, contemplating, pondering, puzzling over, musing, ruminating … well, you get it.

And to this day, I can still hear the voice of one of my friends as I came to the end of the story. “OPINE??? What does opine mean?”

That was a lesson I’ve never forgotten. As far as I can tell—and what I tell the authors whose books I’m editing—only judges opine. We ordinary folks can have and give opinions, but we don’t opine. Stay away from big words, I tell my authors. They’ll tip whatever you’re writing right over into unintended humor.

This could have happened to one of my authors, a young woman I’m very fond of. She’s writing a series of novels that are partly set in an archaeological dig in Turkey. Early in her first novel, the characters come upon a house built of troglodyte.

I nearly fell off my chair. As I explained to my author, a troglodyte is a prehistoric cave dweller. The clichéd cave man. When I looked it up, I learned that the word comes from Trōglodutai, which is the name of an Ethiopian people once considered to be very primitive. My author obviously thought the word was the name of a kind of rock—maybe like dolomite or igneous or gneiss. We find words that sound good, but we somehow neglect to look them up. So we get a house built of troglodyte.

I fixed it for her, of course, by finding out what kind of rock was common in Turkey. (No, I don’t remember anymore.) Then I went on to edit the rest of her novel, which she has submitted to literary agents and publishers. I wish her luck.

And I’m glad that once upon a time I used “opine” in a story and learned that lesson for myself. It’s lessons like this I can pass along to the authors whose books I edit: If you’re new to writing, be careful with vocabulary. Don’t use big, unfamiliar words until after you’ve looked them up and know what they mean.

To learn more about the editing services Dr. Barbara Ardinger offers, please visit her web site at
www.barbaraardinger.com.