Thursday, February 20, 2014

WORD ABUSE: Paper Training the Wolfhound

(NOTE Are you poor, forlorn and hungry?/Are there lots of things you lack?/Is your life made up of misery?/Then dump the bosses off your back./Are your clothes all patched and tattered?/Are you living in a shack?/Would you have your troubles scattered?/Then dump the bosses off your back.)

Millions of words in thousands of languages float from ear to page to eye. The choices available to the modern writer are enough that repetition should rarely occur, but it does, and too often. This frustrates the modern reader in search of good writing. Instead of clarity, the reader has to wade through the mush of generalizations caused by words so over- and misused they have lost their original sparkle and intent.
Finding the right word for the right place is never easy. This makes an etymological dictionary the writer’s best friend, right next to welcoming librarians, kindly bartenders, prompt mail carriers, and compassionate computer technicians. Know your word before you use it. When you are absolutely, positively, hands-down, thumbs-up sure of the meaning and usage of a word, check it again before whacking at the keyboard.
No one knows the way, but nonfiction especially is full of ways to find the way: A Long Way Gone, The Way of the Peaceful Warrior, Ways of Reading (an abominable title for a swell book), The Way I See It, The Way I Am, The Way to Cook (shame on you, Julia Child), The Way We Work, and too many more to follow. “Way” as a general term for method or direction has become meaningless from overuse. Before your fingers start to type out this word, stop and think about specifics. You could mean highways, byways, streets, and roads, or strategy, practice, and order. The more concise the writing, the bigger thrill for the reader.
“Step” is almost as bad as “way.” Twelve-step groups, step by step guides, steps for success and the Epiphany, steps to awakening and self-esteem, and steps to quit smoking. With all these steps, it sounds like every reader is expected to climb a staircase that keeps reaching further from the stated goal. Nonfiction writers take note: Readers are fed up with steps. Give them more than this dull, hackneyed word. Instead of “take steps,” use “take action,” or better still, say the action. Laziness always shows itself, and yours should be kept hidden from the reader. Sleep late instead.
Conspiracies are in government and against the present government, between friends, and wherever money can be found, like banking and big business (also known as collusion when it comes to trial). The word is straightforward until someone does something dumb like sticking on the prefix “co-.” A co-conspirator is a conspirator that is conspiring with another conspirator in a conspiracy, most likely something nasty. “Conspiracy” is for two or more people to plot. Involvement in a conspiracy makes you a conspirator and adding the “co-” prefix trips the root word over its shoelaces. No matter if you have seen the word appear in journalism or high-priced hardcovers, it is wrong.
Knowledge of the tools of writing, the words, helps fiction and nonfiction writers say what he or she wants with precision. Think of words as a treasured resource to be celebrated in every sentence. Create your own standards of what constitutes clear and accurate writing, and follow them. Be ready to change these at any time; usage is affected by time and genre. Never settle for less than your best.
A holiday that involves naked cherubs is bound to be disappointing. Men and women will receive cards and gifts from men and women they don’t like, and nothing from the men and women they do like. Break the wretched cycle by giving the best guide to writing and book publishing, The Dog Walked Down the Street: An Outspoken Guide for Writers Who Want to Publish (Cypress House, $13.95), to everyone you know, regardless of gender. Eventually you will hit the right combination. Push your cursor over to and the address for an independent bookstore near you will appear. By the bag or by the box, this is the best investment for your romantic future. Too many cooks crowd the kitchen.

NEXT: Weaning the Whiner

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