>> Monday, September 21, 2009
First, before we get to the meat of this, I got my exercise video (late) today, so, starting tomorrow, I cannot write my blogs unless I've done the workout. I will be going through the tutorial later tonight. So, if I'm not on, you know, I've been bad or I'm just too exhausted. Here's hoping I show up.
Today's topic could actually count as a soapbox but I'm going to think of it as a writing tip instead because it's really bothering me (i.e., don't want to wait until next Sunday). I have a pet peeve, though I think most writers do, and that's about writers who think "great writing" means "stringing long and pretentious sounding words together even if the meaning makes no sense." I can't read such a writer without envisioning someone with a thesaurus looking synonyms with no concept of the nuances of the words. Bzzt! Wrong answer!
Language is beautiful, flexible and does the near impossible by making people, who have never existed, seem real and painting scenes that have never been with a vivid brush. But that flexibility and incredible versatility means you need to use it judiciously. Mark Twain (who knew his language) said, "The difference between the right word and the almost right word is the difference between lightning and a lightning bug." He was not wrong.
Let me give you some egregious examples:
"a ruddy young girl dithers, pale and fair-haired" - Don't use words to describe someone that are mutually exclusive. Ruddy, literally, means red and denotes someone (or something) with a reddish complexion or appearance (often specifically healthy). Need I point out the contrast with that description and "pale"? My guess is that the author looked up a synonym for the term "coarse" as in a commoner and ruddy came up as ruddy is often used to describe a commoner who spends his day in the sun. Clearly, not applicable here.
"rode her horse over verdant green grass" - I read this on the first page of a book and had to set it down immediately. Verdant means "green" - not a particular shade of green, just green, so adding it to the sentence accomplishes nothing since green's already there. In fact, unless the grass a particular shade of green, like jade or emerald, or some unexpected color (like purple) the green in the sentence is fairly superfluous. And the friend that loaned this book to me was an English teacher.
"the child lumbered nimbly across the room" - seriously, folks, not every synonym for "walked" is appropriate. Most five-year-olds don't lumber unless they're simulating a dinosaur or carrying something twice their size; however, in the unlikely event that they are lumbering, they are not likely to do so nimbly. In a similar way, "marching lightly" or "traipsing ponderously" - both of which I've seen - make no damn sense.
There are more examples, but I'm trying to forget them. Here's the thing, by all means, use descriptive, nuanced, even advanced language. The right word in the right place can do a great deal to evoke an image, describe action, breathe life into a character, but you should never use a word without an understanding of its meaning and its nuances. Finding it in a list of synonyms is no guarantee that they share identical meanings. Use any words that add to the picture, but no more than needed and only if it adds something.
There are some that will be impressed, awed, at a flood of big obscure words because they don't understand them. Such readers might mistake such tactics for good writing, but it fails the most important test. Does it communicate?
If someone misuses language, the only ones who appreciate it are those that don't understand the words anyway.