"Roundheads and Ramblings"
|This article by Kay Bergstrom contains such good advice that I'm copying it here to remind myself to use fewer "bad words". There are no bad words...only bad writers.It originally appeared at:
There are no bad words, only bad writers. Some words, however, set off warning alarms, signaling that the
writer is venturing toward a danger zone and should back away slowly.
Before you use these words (if you must) be aware of what you’re doing.
Here are a few examples:
Suddenly: The word is okay to use in children’s
books because children’s books are limited in word length. The author
doesn’t have time for motivation, transition and goal. “Suddenly, I came
upon a dragon” is perfectly fine. In fiction targeted at grown-ups,
“suddenly” might indicate that the writer hasn’t made a transition.
Where did the dragon come from? How did you find it? Or “suddenly” could
show a lack of motivation. What does it mean to find a dragon?
Almost: Catalogued with almost are: nearly, kind of, sort of, a little bit,
and so on. Check these qualifiers. You’ll almost always (sorry, it got
by me) find a stronger way to say what you want. “A little bit of
scotch” becomes “two fingers of scotch.” “Almost afraid” becomes
“afraid.” “Kind of greenish-blue” becomes “jade and teal.” Almost isn’t
accurate, i.e., almost pregnant.
Very: Consider the same warning as almost but in the
opposite direction. A “very large kitchen” becomes “a kitchen as big as
a basketball court.” There are times when “very” is accurate. As any
mother who has been even a few days overdue will tell you that there is a
state of “very pregnant.”
Laugh: The phrase “we laughed” doesn’t make the
reader want to laugh. We laughed so hard that we all fell down and peed
our pants is worse. Pointing out humor doesn’t make it funny. As
writers, we have accept the fact that much of our cleverness and wit
will go unnoticed by the reader.
Smile: Imagine the variety of emotions Meryl Streep
can convey with a smile. She could be sad or loving or menacing or
nervous or angry, etcetera. And the observer would understand because he
could see her face and hear her tone of voice. Alas, as writers we
don’t have a Streep to illustrate what kind of smile is being given.
There are many words to describe facial expression. Pick one that more
clearly indicates what the character is feeling.
Walk: While we’re on the topic of finding the best
word to suit the action, “walk” is a warning word. Whenever I use
“walk,” I visit Ms. Thesaurus to look for something better: sashay,
stride, shuffle, dance, leap, bound, skip. Each of those words conveys
an image that plain old “walk” doesn’t show.
Exclaimed: It’s hard to think of a situation when
“exclaimed” isn’t redundant. Use an exclamation point! I have two
digressions here. 1) There’s nothing wrong with exclamation points as
long as they aren’t popping up on every page. 2) In dialogue tags, using
“said” doesn’t become redundant. Similar to a script where each piece
of dialogue is labeled, “said” disappears.
Phat and other cute slang: Slang that’s current now
is dated in a couple of years. I’ve never thought of my books as
something that would be read years from now, and so I have been known to
indulge in slang. At times, I threw around “dude” like Wayne’s World.
The joke is on me. My first book was pubbed in 1984 and is available as
“Ah jist knows dat’s de bestest.” Dialect should be used very gently. Consider whether you want the reader to stumble.
F-Bombs and all their x-rated friends: I love the
f-bomb and use it frequently in first drafts to convey down and dirty
rage. In final draft, the profanity usually comes out. There are too
many readers that get pulled out of the story by cursing.
Not a car: If you’re writing anything set in
Colorado, your character will probably be in a vehicle. Be careful not
to identify the character as the car. “I made a U-turn” isn’t accurate.
The car turned, you didn’t. Nit-picking, but why not?
Feel: As a writer of romance and suspense, my
characters are feeling all the time. They’re scared, sexy, courageous,
seductive, outraged and hurt. Whenever I use “feel” (guilty admission:
yes, I use it), I stop and think about another way to say how the
character feels. Better yet, I need a better way to show how they feel.
Is it worth a scene to show? Where did the feeling come from? Do I need a
It: Not the Stephen King novel. Each and every time
you use “it,” you’re missing a chance to say something more descriptive.
Unfortunately, “it” is one of those necessary words that can’t be
totally avoided. “It” is always there, like Pennywise the Evil Clown.
When you see “it” on the page, let it be a warning to you. There might
be a better way.
A couple of years ago, Blogger Janice Harayda began compiling a list of terms that are overused by publishers, critics, and reviewers. I'm going to borrow some of my favorites from her list, while I'm compiling my own list of bits of publishing advice that I'm tired of reading. Here are some of Janice's terms, accompanied by what the writer really wanted to say
- “brilliantly defies categorization”: even the author has no clue what he’s turned in
- “continues in the proud tradition of J.R.R. Tolkien”: this book has a dwarf in it
- “an eBook original”: still no proofreading and bad formatting
- “epic”: very long
- “erotic”: porn
- “literary”: plotless
- “long-awaited”: late
- “the next Elmore Leonard”: This book has criminals or Detroit or maybe Florida in it
- “novella”: short story with large font
Now I'm going to work on my own list of words and phrases that I would like to banish from all further use in treatises about "how to write." I'm starting with this one:
"Show, don't tell." What's that supposed to mean? I can't just say that someone is tall? I have to show him hitting his head on a door frame? Yes, I agree that long descriptive passages can be deadly, but there are also times when nothing will do the job better than a simple adjective. And, for that matter, how do you "show" something with words? Isn't that just "telling" in another form? It's a silly phrase, one that makes the so-called adviser sound like an expert, perhaps, but so over-used by now that it deserves a compassionate burial.
I'm particularly anxious to hear from other -book authors on this question. Do you have your own favorite? The one piece of advice that makes you want to slap the person who offers it? A meaningless phrase? A faddish, but unhelpful, suggestion? Leave your suggestions in the comments below and we'll form our own list.
Here's the rest of the list of words that Wayne State University suggests we use more often. I think I can manage to use all five of them in my next book. They don't seem nearly as obscure as the first five did -- or perhaps I'm just in a better mood today!
• Mawkish: Excessively sentimental; sappy; hopelessly trite.
To her surprise, Beth found Robert’s words of love to be so mawkish that they made her feel sticky, as though she were being painted with molasses.
Much of the music my Confederate lady will be playing on her parlor melodeon would sound mawkish today.
• Natter: To talk aimlessly, often at great length; rarely, it means simply to converse.
You can tell our staff meetings are winding down when everybody starts nattering about their kids.
People natter away all the time, so in a 19th-century parlor you can expect to hear a lot of nattering going on.Once darkness fell, there was little else to do.
• Persiflage: Banter; frivolous talk.
Emma hoped to get Lady Astor into a serious conversation, but as long as the King was around she could elicit only persiflage and gossip.
More often the conversations in a southern parlor turned from simple nattering to persiflage between ladies and their gentlemen callers.
• Troglodyte: Literally, a cave-dweller. More frequently a backward, mentally sluggish person.
Susan felt she could have saved the company if only the troglodytes in management had taken her advice.
And what groups of people do not have their own resident troglodytes? Look at Congress, for example, or any ordinary college classroom. So they are surely present in Civil War South Carolina.
• Winkle: To pry out or extract something; from the process of removing the snail from an edible periwinkle.
Jack showed no inclination to leave his seat beside Alice, but Roger was determined to winkle him out of that chair no matter what it took.
It can take a long time for a parent to winkle the truth out of their children when the question is, "How did this lamp get broken?"
And finally, here's a bonus word (actually a bonus phrase):
Gustatory Rhinitis: A legitimate medical condition that causes one's nose to run whenever food is consumed.
After being embarrassed a several formal banquets, I have found a simple remedy for my gustatory rhinitis. They have a nose spray for that. Who knew!
Yesterday I had a list of words we have in English but fail to use often enough. Today someone sent me a list of words that exist in other languages but NOT in English. These are words we SHOULD have. I'm sure the list is being passed around the internet, but since it arrived without attribution, I can't tell you where it originated. It's just for fun.
1. Shemomedjamo (Georgian)
You know when you're really full, but your meal is just so delicious, you can't stop eating it? The Georgians feel your pain. This word means, "I accidentally ate the whole thing."
2. Pelinti (Buli, Ghana)
Your friend bites into a piece of piping hot pizza, then opens his mouth and sort of tilts his head around while making an "aaaarrrahh" noise. The Ghanaians have a word for that. More specifically, it means "to move hot food around in your mouth."
3. Layogenic (Tagalog)
Remember in Clueless when Cher describes someone as "a full-on Monet... from far away, it's OK, but up close it's a big old mess"? That's exactly what this word means.
4. Rhwe (Tsonga, South Africa)
College kids, relax. There's actually a word for "to sleep on the floor without a mat, while drunk and naked."
5. Zeg (Georgian)
It means "the day after tomorrow." Seriously, why don't we have a word for that in English?
6. Pålegg (Norweigian)
Sandwich Artists unite! The Norwegians have a non-specific descriptor for anything — ham, cheese, jam, Nutella, mustard, herring, pickles, Doritos, you name it — you might consider putting into a sandwich.
7. Lagom (Swedish)
Maybe Goldilocks was Swedish? This slippery little word is hard to define, but means something like, "Not too much, and not too little, but juuuuust right."
8. Tartle (Scots)
The nearly onomatopoeic word for that panicky hesitation just before you have to introduce someone whose name you can't quite remember.
9. Koi No Yokan (Japanese)
The sense upon first meeting a person that the two of you are going to fall in love.
10. Mamihlapinatapai (Yaghan language of Tierra del Fuego)
This word captures that special look shared between two people, when both are wishing that the other would do something that they both want, but neither want to do first.
11. Fremdschämen (German); Myötähäpeä (Finnish)
The kinder, gentler cousins of Schadenfreude, both these words mean something akin to "vicarious embarrassment." Or, in other words, that-feeling-you-get-when-you-watch-Meet the Parents.
12. Cafune (Brazilian Portuguese)
Leave it to the Brazilians to come up with a word for "tenderly running your fingers through your lover's hair."
13. Greng-jai (Thai)
That feeling you get when you don't want someone to do something for you because it would be a pain for them.
14. Kaelling (Danish)
You know that woman who stands on her doorstep (or in line at the supermarket, or at the park, or in a restaurant) cursing at her children? The Danes know her, too.
Try fitting one of those into your next great work of literature!
I've been going over Wayne State University's new list of words that should be used more frequently. I thoroughly enjoyed the last two lists they put out, but this one is giving me some trouble. See what you think.
• Buncombe---"Rubbish; nonsense; empty or misleading talk.
What a relief to have the election over — that great festival of buncombe that so distracted the nation for months."
All right, I've heard the word frequently but I've never seen it with this spelling. I always thought it was "bunkum," giving rise to the more pointed and descriptive "bunk!" The only dictionary I have at hand gives my spelling as the first alternative; is the second the British version, or is it just an attempt to make the word more respectable?
• Cerulean--- The blue of the sky.
Her eyes were a clear, deep cerulean blue, like no eyes Trevor had ever seen, and looking into them made him feel lighter than air, as though he could fly, but even if he could have flown he would have stayed where he was, content just to look.
Blue is a really tricky color. My dictionary provides "azure" as its definition, and then describes azure as a light purplish blue. My Microsoft Word dictionary suggests several synonyms, like navy, sapphire, indigo, or cobalt. So what color's your sky? (And yes, I know that today it's all gray and you'd settle for any shade of blue.) I doubt I'll be using this one in my next book.
• Chelonian---Like a turtle (and who doesn’t like turtles?).
Weighed down by bickering and blather, the farm bill crept through Congress at a chelonian pace.
Actually chelonian is a reference to a species that includes 224 different turtles, tortoises, and terrapins. Don't know the difference? Neither do I, but when I think of Congress's forward progress, I don't see it as very turtle-like, unless that turtle is moving backwards!
• Dragoon---To compel by coercion; to force someone to do something they’d rather not.
After working in the yard all day, Michael was dragooned into going to the ballet instead of flopping down to watch the Red Wings on TV.
They have defined this as a verb, but the word that sprang to my mind was a noun -- technically a heavily-armed mounted soldier of the 17th and 18th century. The Confederate army stole the term during the Civil War to name their cavalry units (like the Charleston Light Dragoons, of the 4th South Carolina Cavalry Regiment), who, if truth be told, were not very forceful all all.
• Fantods---Extreme anxiety, distress, nervousness or irritability.
Jeremy’s love of islands was tempered by the fact that driving over high bridges always gave him the raging fantods.
Ever heard of this one? Me neither. According to my dictionaries, the definition is accurate, but in this age of pop stars with fandoms, and pop psychology with its plethora of neuroses, I doubt that it would prove useful -- unless, of course, you could accompany it with a great deal of hand waving and hand-wringing as illustrations.
And therein lies my problem with the new list. I'm all in favor of the discovery of great new words, but when I use a word I want it to be vividly descriptive, not so vague that the reader has to run to a dictionary to figure out what I'm talking about. Perhaps the next group of words will be better. We'll see about them tomorrow