Here’s an article I wrote for my friend Jean Rabe, editor of The Bulletin of the Science Fiction & Fantasy Writers of America (or “the SFWA Bulletin” for short). Now that the print copy has shipped, I’m able to post my work here for everyone else to see. This is my last version of the original file, before it was sent to Jean. Nothing substantial was changed.
As usual, this is an opinion piece and should be taken as such. Hope you like it.
Say the Secret Word
Some words are better used than others.
Some should be used once in a book, others once in a series of books, and others perhaps once in a lifetime.
I leave it to you to decide for yourself which words fall into which categories for your own purposes. As for me, if I never see another “exit” it will be too soon.
It’s a pretty common word, after all, isn’t it? We see Exit all the time while traveling interstate highways. It glows red above doors in public places. Those usages I can encounter without twitching. However, in a novel I really don’t need to see the word used ever again.
You see, it’s been ruined for me now thanks to something I read not long ago where every time there was a door or a tunnel opening or a cave mouth . . . every time someone left a room or a hallway . . . it was an exit. It wasn’t a door, or a tunnel opening, or a cave mouth. It was an exit. People didn’t leave. They exited.
Is there a secret club somewhere for authors with an entrance requirement that reads “Use one word to the exclusion of any possible synonyms every time you need to convey X concept or thought or movement”?
Did I miss the memo that said “For the month of February, we’ll be using the word ‘exit’ instead of ‘door, tunnel opening, cave mouth, or leave”?
Someone else told me that she’d encountered “undulate” in nearly every book she’d read over the course of several months, regardless of genre. Herpetology and belly-dancing notwithstanding, undulation’s not all that common a term in everyday parlance. It strikes me as one of those once-a-book words (unless the book’s about snakes or belly-dancers). While it’s certainly evocative, if it were to appear in every chapter (again, unless the main character’s a snake or a belly-dancer) the reader could well have one of two reactions: becoming inured to it, or becoming annoyed by it. Neither one is terribly desirable in my book. (Not that I’m writing one, you know. It’s a figure of speech. No, really, it is. I’m not a writer. Move along, nothing to see here . . .)
What’s the term? Oh, yes. “Hackneyed.” No one enjoys reading hackneyed writing. And things that weren’t hackneyed before can become so with overuse, like the convention of “a single tear.” It was powerful when we saw that public service announcement decades ago with that lone drop of saltwater coursing down the cheek of Chief Iron Eyes Cody. It really was.
But think about this; if every time characters become emotional we see a single tear course down a cheek, why should we care? Do they have a blocked tear duct in that other eye, since only one tear’s getting loose? That’s a serious medical condition, y’know.
Consider the act of nodding. Are your characters bobbleheads?
Sure, people nod in assent, they nod off, they nod to a friend they pass on the street. But do they have to nod every time they say “yes?” EVERY TIME? Can’t we assume they do, without seeing the word? We’re intelligent folks, most of us. If the dialogue tells us someone says “yes,” we’ll probably visualize them nodding. Now, if for some reason they’re nodding vehemently, we probably need to be told. But just nodding? Naah. We can figure that one out on our own, thanks.
Heaving bosoms. Alabaster ones, even. We don’t need ’em. Bodice rippers don’t even need ’em. Words that I could stand to see more often, but still only once per book: Mellifluous. Exaltation. Luxuriant.
Words I don’t need to see for a while (aside from “exit”): Massive. Cavernous. Stealthy.
And while I’m on about words I don’t need to see, let me rant for a moment about words that don’t really mean what you think they mean (like “massive”). “Massive” carries a sense of weight, of enormousness. Buildings, mountains, even people can be massive. Caverns can’t. There’s no weight to a cavern. It’s a hole. A really really BIG hole, but a hole nevertheless. Caverns are—wait for it—cavernous. They’re enormous. They’re immense, perhaps. But they’re not massive.
So they’re enormous. But they don’t have enormity. See, “enormity” refers to an occurrence or a state of being. The tragedy of 9-11 can be called an enormity in the sense of “atrocity.” Someone who is staggeringly brilliant can be described with a phrase like “enormity of intellect.” But a cavern doesn’t have enormity. It doesn’t have massiveness (it’s a hole, remember?).
Let’s go back to those exits for a moment or five. When I read something like the project to which I referred earlier, and I’m seeing the same word over and over, I start making notes on the side (usually actual notes, with real dead-tree paper and ink or pencil). Sometimes those notes end up going to the author after I’ve inserted them into the file as comments; sometimes they’re just for me. In the case of the excessive exits, most of them were just for me. I’d mark the sentence and make a note for myself to come back later and try recasting it to eliminate the word, tightening the prose as I did so. (I tightened an awful lot of prose in this project. A few thousand words’ worth.) “He stood up from the chair and exited the room” might have become “He rose and stalked out.” (I’m not giving you the actual sentences and changes. I’m using very similar sentences, though. They’re pretty much burned into my brain. Someday they’ll fade . . . I hope.)
Then there are the words that just plain don’t belong. At all. If you’re using voice-recognition software, you need to be aware that what you say might not come out the same on the other end of the process. You can end up with things like this: “The fact that all of those attacks had the same purpose couldn’t have been quintessential.” What? “Quintessential?” I kid you not; I stared at that sentence for a long time before I finally read it aloud. Then and only then did I realize the word had to be “coincidental.” Perhaps it would have clicked sooner for some of you, and perhaps not. Some of you might still be staring at it a month later. (I hope not, but it could happen, I suppose.) The words don’t sound that much alike to me, but if someone had less-than-good diction I can understand how a piece of software might confuse the two. That one incident caused me to do another round, this time reading aloud (which I don’t usually do) just in case I’d missed something else. (I hadn’t.)
I suspect the same thing might have happened to cause the word “perimeter” to show up instead of “parameter.” Those two sound far more alike than “quintessential” and “coincidental,” so I was far less confused. I bring this up because I know quite a few writers are turning to voice recognition; they’re dictating their drafts instead of typing them, because it’s faster. Faster is good. Faster isn’t always better. If you’re doing this, I beg you on behalf of copyeditors everywhere: Read your work after it’s transcribed. Aloud. Don’t skim it. READ it. You’ll save time and money and effort if you catch these errors before we do. (You’ll also save yourself the ignominy of being written about in essays, albeit anonymously so.)
But I digress . . .
Back to that repetition issue. If you have an assassin who wears black from head to toe, think twice before referring to him as “the man in black” every time he appears. A less-friendly copyeditor than I might change all references to him to “the MIB.” (Or they might refer to him as Cash. Points for getting that reference. No cash, just points.) Ask yourself how else he might be called, what other terms or epithets you could use. If his identity’s a state secret and only a handful of people know his real name (or perhaps no one knows his real name, but a handful know his code name) you’ll have to be more creative than usual with this, but I have faith in you as a writer. Read every scene where this fellow appears, and see how often you’ve repeated the same phrase describing him. You may well end up rewriting entire paragraphs to avoid the repetition. So be it. Your readers (and your copyeditor before them) will be forever grateful.
A caveat, though. Avoid the temptation to reference a thesaurus every time you get stuck. Readers have great radar for the results of this action. While the occasional twenty-dollar word (like ignominy) can boost your writing, using a whole passel of them in one or two paragraphs will set off every thesaurus-alarm in the country. Contemplate your intended meaning and choose the best words to convey it. Those might well be simple everyday words, not the pricey ones your reader will have to look up. How they’re put together will make the difference.
Words are our friends. Let them do the talking, in all their variations, their shades of meaning. Don’t send your readers running for the exit (door, tunnel opening, cave mouth) before the story ends.