Wednesday, October 3, 2012

Wednesday Writing Tips: Weak Words

By copy editor Victoria Reese
He contemplated the miniscule chamber, its prosaic tile at odds with the neo-modernistic appurtenances.
Excuse me? I honestly had a writer once who used words like this in the novel he was writing. The above sentence is a description of a bathroom in an old farmhouse. Although I consider myself well-read and familiar with the English language, I had trouble getting through his story. This is an example of PhD language. Words that are too full of themselves or using language that sends the reader running for the dictionary.
If your reader has to stop to figure out what you’re saying, you’ve lost him or her. The use of simple words does not always mean dull or uninteresting. For instance, walk may be dull; stroll is simple but descriptive and interesting; perambulate is verbose. Consider the following examples:
Dull?                   Interesting           Over the Top
cart                      carriage               conveyance
wordy                   glib                     loquacious
name                    moniker              sobriquet
Hopefully you see the pattern here. Use colorful, interesting language but don’t require your reader to check the dictionary every other sentence.
When we write, we tend to use the same favorite words over and over. Like meatloaf or a well-remembered meal from childhood, they’re comfortable. We know them—know how to spell them and use them. Ah, but does that mean they’re good?
Not necessarily. Just like a favorite dessert, too much of anything is not good. Some words that seem perfectly fine are actually weak words that give your writing less impact than it should have.
For instance, Shakespeare didn’t call Katharina a mean woman. He called her a shrew. When a cat is chasing a mouse, it doesn’t jump suddenly. It pounces. A teenage boy wolfs his food. The words shrew, pounce and wolf are stronger than the lukewarm phrases they replace. Search your manuscript for overused or lukewarm nouns and verbs and see if you can’t find a better way to say it with stronger words.


Ann Jacobs said...

I agree, using words that many readers will have to look up in the dictionary is bad. Once in a while, though, I like to throw in a less common word when it fits the situation better than any of its simpler synonyms. Once in a while, I said--certainly not often enough that the readers think my erotic romance is a veiled prep course for the SAT or worse, the GRE.

crfs said...

There's so much temptation, especially for newer writers, to use the Latinate dictionary over the Anglo. I've been guilty of that more than I care to admit. Yet the Anglo lexicon can pack more punch and convey meaning so well, if used artfully.
Either way, using sesquipedalian (*wink*) words for the sake of using long words is annoying.