Words Are Our Profession

Look, I know not everyone is as goofy about words as I am. I can become struck by a sentence, and have it repeat in my head for days as I become half-drunk on it. Most of those sentences are poetry, but sometimes it’s just a bit of prose where each word strikes a deeper cord, or evokes various meanings from a seemingly simple construction.

And no, don’t ask me for examples, because right now I don’t have one running through my head.

I will also straight up admit that I must be very odd in my relationship with text, because I never understand why anyone highlights or clips certain excerpts from books. When I got my latest kindle, I had the “show other people’s markings” setting on and couldn’t figure out how to turn it off. This made me glare a lot, as I couldn’t figure out why people were highlighting completely mundane sentences. Of course, it’s entirely possible that all these highlights and clipping of sentences happen the way they happen to me: Kindle starts falling, grab it with my off hand, and suddenly I’ve saved a clipping of “Hi, I am looking for my cat” as though it were some kind of life altering message. (As is, I had to turn the dictionary off, otherwise, by the same process, I was continuously having the meaning of “hand” or “parasol” explained to me.)

However, I find that my love of words gets me in deep trouble. Mostly when I’m tired/busy and therefore reading Austen fanfic, I’ll admit, although I’ve started catching the same problems in non fanfic books ranging from romance to mystery and even the occasional fantasy and science fiction. (It’s not that science fiction authors are better, understand. It’s just that we’re geeks, and therefore more likely to try to get the details right.)

These problems are best described as “taking a silly turn at the vocabulary tree.” My younger son writes very competently, but in speaking tends to grab the nearest word and shove it in place of the right one. I think because his brain works too fast, and he doesn’t want to lose track of the sentence, so he shoves the first word to cross his mind in the place of “something like.” (This is how he one day told us when he died he wanted to be crucified. Our reaction was “what, in the front yard? The neighbors will talk.” Turned out he – of course — meant cremated. It’s just was well it was that substitution. It could easily have been crimped, honestly.)

Today’s ARGH was someone who insists on using “donned” instead of “dressed.” I have no clue why. Maybe she thinks it’s more period language. But we get things like “People were donned in last year fashions.” While last year fashions in dresses can be donned, and people can don dresses, people cannot be donned. I keep imagining all these people as Edgar Suits, from Men in Black.

I do realize that I come from pre-history and therefore these things bother me, but a modicum of respect for the language will spare you my arghs. (Maybe — having read Amanda’s post from yesterday — it was in fact written by robots. It occurs to me AI might do okay for fanfic? Maybe?)

Since I was reading at dinner (what? Don’t you?) my husband who was also reading (We DO talk to each other, often. We were both just tired from the con) interrupted my ARGH by reading to me the list of things minimalists say we’re not allowed to do in writing.

I don’t remember all the rules, but it was the usual, and as usual advertised itself as “rules for good writing.” It is, in fact, rules for absolutely blah and lifeless writing, because what it does is eliminate personality, individuality and subtlety.

So you get stuff like “Don’t use superfluous words” which is all fine and dandy, except that what is superfluous. As a reader and writer, yeah, I do get lost in big long paragraphs to no purpose, but what if there is a purpose. What if the long involved sentence relates to how the character thinks? Or the involved description is designed to hide or reveal something important?

“Don’t qualify how something is said” or of course “Only use said.” While I will confess that some of the old contortions to avoid using “said” are a little odd (I was listening to an old audio book, with my kids in the room, and then someone ejaculated something or other) let’s be honest, it can be carried to extremes. And “he said” “She said” starts looking like a ping pong match. I avoid the whole thing, by having action tags in the middle of the dialogue, so that I also remind the reader the characters have bodies and a physical presence. But sometimes, sometimes, you need “asked” or “shouted.” I once had someone in a workshop yell at me that you could tell if a character whispered by the words. You know what? Maybe there is a way to do this. Maybe you lower the number of consonants, or whatever. But it seems to me by playing with that kind of nonsense, you immediately lower your readability. Just like people who think it essential to write only in words or Anglo-saxon origin and not mix in Latin derivatives, in the same paragraph, after a while you’re hobbling yourself and concentrating so much on that stuff that you are hampering your prose. You end up taking long detours around meaning, instead of writing clearly. Which is of course the opposite of what the idiots who made the rule think they’re doing.

The same goes double with a pinch of “yes indeedy” when it comes to avoiding adjectives and adverbs. Sure, okay, you can use adjectives and adverbs to distance the prose, and make it seem over-elaborate, instead of just saying what is there. But all adverbs and adjectives, including the dreaded “Very” have a place in writing artistically. There is a difference of tone and rhythm in saying. “He was cold.” And “He was very cold.” Or even “He was very, very cold.” And yes, sometimes the third is very, very needed to express your meaning feelingly and with narrative vigor.

Oh, and don’t get me started on not describing people at length — there goes all of romance, or for that matter anything else that wants to imprint a character’s physical presence in your mind in a unique and unforgettable way — or not describing landscapes and places at length — there goes all of Tolkien.

The truth is that words are tools. All words are tools. They can be used clumsily and to destroy the art, or they can be used…. artistically.

A description of a landscape (or the weather) can give you the mood of a piece, the history of a place (which you’d otherwise have to put into stilted dialogue or boring dry exposition.) A description of a person can hide hints to his personality, or reveal the narrator’s otherwise hidden lust or revulsion.

Adjectives? Adverbs? Well, badly used they will make your work read like those interminable and bizarrely popular company mission statements of the nineties. “We aim to activate the diverse cultural synergy by emphasizing the deliberately opaque box out of which we will feelingly extract the emotively charged kumquat.”

However properly used, they can add something, even if it’s just a feeling of hesitation, of drawing out the statement which in turn will reflect the mood of character or scene more than a simple statement of fact.

Reading the rules, I thought it was a lot like what Pratchett said about the Marquis of Fantailer rules of fist-fights (Yes, an obvious joke on the Marquis de Queensbury boxing rules) “He was very bad at fighting, and therefore he made up the rules for fighting by listing all the ways in which people weren’t allowed to hit him.”

The rules of minimalist writing (No, not good writing. the minimalists are a movement like any other. They come and go every so often) after a while start to sound like people who aren’t very good at writing and who therefore want to make rules on how everyone isn’t allowed to write in any way they can’t. They figure if everyone is writing bland, flavorless prose, they’ll finally be competitive, I guess.

And the worst part for them? They had it completely sewn up, and all the trad pub editors convinced to follow their rules, and then indie came on the scene, and now no one pays any attention to them and is running around describing weather and scenes, and using all the adjectives and adverbs they very well please.

Now if I could just get them to stop reaching for a vaguely appropriate word that starts with the same letter and is approximately the same length as the right one, it would be a very good world indeed.

Maybe if I shake my cane at them!

54 comments

  1. When I went to work for the Army in the late 70s, I got a lot of firm guidance on working to eliminate using passive voice and phrases like, “in the event of.” When I left, 32 years later, people were still using, “the valve should be turned no more than 35 degrees,” and, “in the event of….”
    You can argue with a light colonel about things like that, but when he says, “It sounds better that way,” you’re gonna lose. (Yes, I did. Yes, he said that. Yes, it went out the way he wanted).

    1. Passive voice is useful to avoid ownership. After all, if the valve turning turns out to have been wrong, how can anyone be blamed if no-one is named?

      If I turned the valve, then clearly I made a mistake and take the blame. Which is also why using passive-voice is a white-collarism.

      Consider the two sentences: “I turned the valve and it came right off! It took me an hour to get that plugged back up.”

      “When the valve was turned it came off. Plugging it back up took an hour.”

      Which one sounds like something you’d expect a plumber to say, and which one would a manager?

      1. The active voice can be used to avoid responsibility, too. “Some restrictions apply,” means “Some restrictions _are_ applied,” meaning “_We_ apply some restrictions.” I leave further analysis to Stephen Kruiser or Steven Green.

      2. I’ve just had an annoying modern writing style explained to me! Avoiding the passive! Plus the refusal to write compound sentences. My bugaboo is what Fowler called the “Fused Participle” or that gerunds’ subjects are in the possessive case in English. People from the Old Northwest (north of the Ohio and east of the Mississippi know this and the coastal “elites” don’t. Also, for those of us who occasionally have to deal with Professorial German and its participle phrase constructions English Gerund constructions are a neat way of Getting Even because German gerunds can’t do the amazing things English Gerunds can and it causes their Teutonic brains to explode as they try to comprehend!

    2. Passive voice is preferred in some forms of technical writing.

      I don’t want to turn the information about this thing I did into story about me, when the audience only cares about the thing, and would find me and my story an unwelcome distraction.

      In fiction, the point is usually a story.

      In public affairs? There are other places for the dry recitation of technicalities that no member of the public is going to read. The point of public affairs is to tell a story that might spread (if good), and something bland and forgettable (if bad).

  2. A lot of it is context. Sometimes using an adverb provides the greatest economy. Rather than always describing someone’s voice or facial expressions, adding a single adverb to “he said” can allow both reader and writer to just move along. Too much of that is, of course, too much.

    1. So if I’m parsing the sentence correctly as it’s written, it means that people who were wearing last year’s fashions got captured by the MiB aliens and turned into Edgar suits?

      As bad as it must be to be turned into an Edgar suit, I imagine it’s even worse if you’re stuck in last year’s fashions.

  3. “Get off my lawn!” she emoted.

    The superfluous language thing reminds me of some of the cover letters for resumes I’ve been reading. It appears someone grabbed a handy thesaurus sitting nearby and figured they’d pop in a couple of unusual words to show they have an expansive vocabulary. In the meantime, I’m sitting there thinking, “while I believe I understand the point he’s trying to make, the flow of this sentence is horrible.” But one of the things I absolutely about the works of Charlotte MacLeod is that she does have an expansive vocabulary and makes me grab a dictionary to make sure I’m understanding that word correctly. Right now I’m listening to an audiobook of P.G. Wodehouse where he, at times, has the character end his descriptions “blah, blah” or “some such” to show just how uninterested the character is in what’s being said. It gives a wonderful sense of the character.

  4. “grabbed a handy thesaurus”

    My father. He got comments about it back from the Patent office. Someday I will get brave and tackle his opus. Possibly even edit it and publish it.

  5. Did Don Juan don denim dungarees?

    With respect to Tolkien, he didn’t really give long descriptions. Just small evocative details about specific things that encouraged you to extrapolate the rest.
    It annoys me that I’ve been trying to get the knack for too many hours, and still don’t have competence.

      1. Too much Hemmingway in creative writing classrooms when the current professors and editors were studying. Sparse is a style. It is not a rule of writing.

        1. Precisely this. It’s a style and can be used very well. Or not.
          My style in Shakespearean fantasy is FAR more recherche than my style in say science fiction. Or essays.
          Horses for courses.

          1. As Tom Simon pointed out, style is the Rocket. Your story, your poem, your how-to manual is the payload.

            C.S. Lewis also pointed out (albeit not in so many words) that some payloads cannot be delivered except using certain devices.

            So strict style guides strangle what can be delivered by the creator.

  6. “Minimalism. Again,” she sighed.

    The orange cat looked up from its morning ablutions. “Indeed. Directness and terse phrasing have their place, but circumlocutions and verbal perambulation often serve eloquent purposes.” The cat’s tail flicked a few centimeters. “Or to bury a victim in nefarious bafflegab.”

    “That too.”

  7. I once had someone in a workshop yell at me that you could tell if a character whispered by the words.

    :kersnerk:

    You know, that might explain some of the accusations of reading comprehension failure when I don’t pick up on what someone WANTED me to read, rather than what is actually there.

    1. Right? I can shout “Be careful” I can say it. Or I can whisper it. If I have to say “Be careful, I’m whispering so you don’t speak loudly” the reader will think the character is retarded.

  8. I was once told that J.K. Rowling was not a good author because she uses adverbs. Because, Lord knows, the world’s first billionaire author needed advice on grammar from someone who had never even submitted anything from publishing. It made me want to punch him mightily with my strong right arm. This crap makes me whine piteously while happily plotting my revenge and cackling evilly.

    Also…

    You can turn off others notes on Kindle?

    How is this witchery accomplished?

    1. This. She made reading fun for kids again. This could not be allowed!
      Go into settings. I don’t remember. I just poked around enough it turned off.
      I got tired of being told that six people had highlighted “He came in and closed the door.” And other such gems.

    2. If you have one of the newer kindles look under the font settings. Go into a book, and tap the Aa font symbol. You’ll get a menu at the bottom of font, theme (no idea what that is).. something else, and “more.” You want ‘more. ‘ on my paperwhite I have to scroll down to see turn off popular highlights, but it’s there.
      Why it is there is left as an exercise for the frustrated reader who wasted hours trying to turn the silly thing off.

  9. David Drake is probably the only real minimalist writer I can think of.

    He packs so much nightmare fuel into so few words. I vividly remember the scene where their ship takes a hit, and the loader starts to fall out the door. Main Character tried to grab him. The loader’s arm snapped off at the elbow. The near hit had carbonized him.

    And that’s about as many words he used too. So much information, and so many implications packed into that incredibly dense little chunk of text.

    1. This is something I *try* to do. When I can. Because it’s also a mistake that annoys me. I will try to explain.

      The readers are not stupid. They’re *your readers,* you praise them for actually picking up and paying for your book! Therefore you don’t treat them like unlettered fools by explaining every. Little. Thing. In excruciating detail. When folks do that in real life, the people that are forced to listen to them (and yes, it’s usually forced- they *walk away* otherwise) dislike that.

      A reader will invariably create the story in their head with much more than simply the words on the page. *Good* writing celebrates that by leaving room for the reader’s imagination to fill in the gaps. I think it can also imply speed and action, because he who gets focused on the little details during the fight scene tends to get hit lots until his focus returns to the fight (assuming he survives).

      1. On fight sequences, I think there’s actually a rough number of observations per unit time. I haven’t actually analyzed it, but it does seem like Drake has similar amounts of description for the same length of event.

        The difference between experienced and inexperienced characters seems to be in what they are observing. His experienced characters typically seem to be observating the more processed and abstract things, while the neophites are observing the immediate sensations.

        The experienced character will observe the ship rocks from a hit, and his companion is falling out the door. But a character who does not know what’s going on with observe the flash and sudden heat, and be thrown from their feet by the floor pitching.

        Both of them have about three observations in the same span of time of the same event, even though their perspectives are completely different. And you’re right: the readers are usually intelligent enough to fill in the gaps, if they want to.

      2. For action, you should be as minimal as possible, including omitting stuff revealed later. Because in action, people act automatically, forget stuff they do, and confabulate other stuff.

      3. actually you often get focused on irrelevant little details. Agatha Christie described being caught in a bombing, and all she could think of was that the lady ahead of her had a hole in her stocking.
        BUT meanwhile your body is reacting and doing stuff.

        1. I remember she used that, more or less, in one of her books: Poirot was describing being caught in a bomb shelter and having an aching corn on one of his feet. Rather than the bigger danger distracting from the corn, it added to it: if he was going to be blown to bits by the Nazis, it didn’t seem fair that his feet should ache while he was dealing with that.

      4. Silly writer! You’re not writing for some randos who might pick up your book. You’re writing for the Big Contract, where your story will be assigned as course work, and they’ll have to buy it and read it even if they don’t want to.

  10. “Maybe — having read Amanda’s post from yesterday — it was in fact written by robots. It occurs to me AI might do okay for fanfic? Maybe?”

    That reminds me. Somewhere- and I can’t find it just now- either Ace or Pixy linked an article about the AI writing apps and how they were going to be taking over litcrit or something. Because of course it was.

    No, really.

    Post modern literature criticism is some of the most formalized, formulaic, brain dead crap that exists in the English language, and I am including technical manuals in that. It does not require creativity. It exists to enforce conformity. AI is *pretty good* at conformity to rule sets.

    I’ve said for years that any B level college lit crit (especially the Marxist derived ones) could be easily replaced by a relatively simple script. Turns out somebody actually did it. Heh.

    AI for fiction? Might have its place. Tools to use. Stuff like helping bust writer’s block, maybe. Doing the actual work of writing? It’d have to be short- the variables don’t increase additively- more like exponentially, or logarithmically, I think. They won’t be doing space opera any time soon.

    Might be okay for rough plot diagrams. Meh. If they load it up with the “rules” of writing, it’s going to suck, though.

  11. I remember reading, IIRC, George Orwell pontificating about how much he hated the “not un-” construction, and that no one should use it. I can understand it being over-used, but “He was happy” and “He was not unhappy” do not mean the same thing. Sometimes not even close to the same thing.

    1. And yet IIRC he had no particular problem with the guy who wrote “if not actually disgruntled, he was far from being gruntled.” The “not un-” was a very British construction of the period, though with some parallels in French IIRC. The bad or unoriginal stylist beats every turn of phrase to death, and banning some particular turn of phrase or writing quirk merely makes trouble for someone who might have a legitimate use for it.

      If writing quirks are outlawed, only outlaws will have writing quirks. Or something.

  12. every English teacher I ever had would tell us all not to use adjectives or adverbs and not to make things too wordy and then give me As for any creative writing projects… which basically ignored their instructions and wrote how i wrote.

  13. Remember, above all, eschew obfuscation.

    Unless, of course, the point needs to be obfuscated to keep the reader from finding out too much too soon.

  14. What is the good of words if they aren’t important enough to quarrel over? Why do we choose one word more than another if there isn’t any difference between them? If you called a woman a chimpanzee instead of an angel, wouldn’t there be a quarrel about a word? If you’re not going to argue about words, what are you going to argue about? Are you going to convey your meaning to me by moving your ears? The Church and the heresies always used to fight about words, because they are the only thing worth fighting about.

    ― G.K. Chesterton

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