Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Choosing the (Im)Perfect Word

Recently, I was reading a work by a much-loved author and I came across the sentence, "He smelt the smoke in the autumn air."


Okay, so technically, it's a perfectly acceptable word in the context of the sentence. But when I hear (or read) smelt, I automatically think of the fish. Or the ore. "Smelt" as a past tense of "smell" is the last option my brain conjures up. This jolts me out of the story as I have to ask, What's wrong with "smelled"? 

Someone else I know can't read that a character "snickered" without thinking about horses. Laugh, chuckle, chortle, guffaw, if they must, but "snicker" just doesn't work for her.

Another reader asked me if "hared" was a real word (as in, "He hared off in pursuit of the child.") For the record, yes, it's a real word. It means to run like a hare.

A while back, I read a book that I didn't care for. One of the biggest problems for me was that the protagonist kept calling the paparazzi, "paps" and every time I read it, I felt like I should be making my annual OB/GYN appointment.

As writers, we're often torn between keeping our prose simple and coming up with that perfect word or description that will define an action or characteristic without the heavy use of adjectives and adverbs. It's a fine line we dance upon. And sometimes we stumble. When we stumble, our readers also stumble.

The thing is, we don't always know. I mean "smelt" went past the author and her editor, so who am I to say she should have gone with "smelled" instead? Maybe where they live, smelt has nothing to do with fish or ore.

That one reader who has trouble with "snickered" is probably in the minority. Right? You tell me if that particular term bothers you. I have to admit since I heard her argument, I, too, now think of horses when I see the word. <shrug!> The power of suggestion...

"Hared" is a rare word choice, but I see "rabbited" a lot and it's basically the same definition. Whereas "hared" can be confused with hard or hated by a reader, "rabbited" is pretty straight-forward.

Paps? That one's just unforgivable in my book.

What to do?

Well, editors have an acronym for this: KISS. Keep It Simple, Stupid.

Don't use "queried" when "asked" will do.
If you're going to use a new or unique word, make sure it can't be confused with a totally different, more common term that has a similar or the same spelling. 
Rare is rarely better than common.

Your story is what makes your book unique, not how many words you look up in your thesaurus.

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