Tuesday, April 7, 2009

Words, words and more words

My beloved and dog-eared copy, bought in my college days

In Elements of Style, E.B.White warns "not to be tempted by a twenty-dollar word when there is a ten-center handy, ready and able."

I get that. But I'm also all too aware of the limitations of my vocabulary. And it is during the revision process that most I yearn to be English (or even a genteel Southern belle). I read all the Reader's Digest "Increase Your Word Power" articles growing up and took college prep courses in high school. But I can never say "vehemently" with ease and I keep a notebook of words to look up whenever I read. I need vocab-rehab.

Aspiring to be as lyrical and precise as my dear friend, Susan Patron, and inspired by my interview with her, I even bought an Oxford English Dictionary, (Compact edition, 1989) on eBay. It came without magnifying glass and the one I own is severely lacking. (Mother's Day gift suggestion, family!)

Looking up "accesssion" gave me eye strain

I long to be erudite in what I pen, but alas, my words are more blue collar than blue blood. And, I have this annoying habit of overusing words -- "just" and "actually" are just a few. Each new manuscript seems to lead to "pet" words; the newly completed WIP sagged under "hefted," and "imagined," and "snorted" (don't ask). I personally rely heavily on a taped together copy of The Synonym Finder, edited by J.I Rodale to help me vary the way my characters walk (swagger, stride, stomp, sidle), talk (whisper, grumble, mutter, trill) and chew gum (chomp, smack, nibble, worry).

It's time to tell all: what word boosters do you use? What are your word demons and quirks? I'm dying/near death/knocking on heaven's door/one foot in the grave to know.


  1. Unless you're playing Scrabble, I think a small vocabulary is a boon to a writer. Otherwise, it's all too tempting to sound off like William F. Buckley. Who I'll bet was a brilliant Scrabble player.

  2. I agree with Tony, though I love big, new words too. "Just" is a word I tend to overdo as well. And "smiled." I'm sure there many others--I depend on my critique group and editors to point them out when I don't see them myself. Anyway, Kirby, you DO write lyrically. That's one of the many things I admire about your writing!

  3. My dear crit partner finds "suddenly" and "finally" all over my manuscript--and that's after I cut out the ones that feel extraneous to me! My real problem, though, is dashes--I can't use them in manuscripts because one dash opens Pandora's box and "suddenly" they're in every sentence. I have to save them for emails and blog posts so I can still get my fix:)

  4. everyone in my current manuscript shudders. The MC shudders. His father shudders. A turkey shudders. Can I borrow your synonym finder?

  5. Oh, thanks, all, for sharing! It's good to know one's not alone. And, Linda, the synonym finder was about $15 a time of purchase (a few years ago, to be sure) and well worth every penny. Even if it's up to $25 now. Ask for one for Mother's Day -- that's how I got mine!

  6. Oh, I love this post! My word demons are definitely "every now and then."

    But recently, I was at a school where the kids had read several of my books and they noticed that I used the tick, tick, ticking of a clock in a few of them. I was so shocked - because I knew that in my next book, a ticking clock is kind of an important element! Hmmmm.

    AND - a few kids also noticed that I referred to pork and beans in more than one book. ???? I couldn't even remember which ones! They had to remind me....

  7. And Barbara, we won't even mention that you have a penchant for a certain name, despite continuously bestowing it on the wrong sex!