Clarity

Gotta love ambiguity.  I was reading one of my genealogy blogs this morning, and there was a ‘news’ segment that gave links to other articles.  The title of one was:  “Digital Panopticon: London convicts database project”.

My first reaction was, ‘Why?  What did they do wrong?’  The problem arose from the word ‘convicts’.  There is a noun and a verb form of that word, with different meanings.  In this instance, the article is referring to ‘London convicts’ (noun), aka criminals.  But my reading the word in its verb form suggested that Digital Panopticon had been found guilty of some wrongdoing and were to be punished.

Words are beautiful things, but they can also be tricky.  In this case, the headline didn’t make sense to me (I couldn’t think of what a digitization project might be guilty of), so I reconsidered and realized my misinterpretation.  But that isn’t always the case with readers.  Often they merely take the words at face value, with whatever meaning they initially perceive.  Only if someone challenges them on it do they give the matter more thought.

That can make a difference in our writing.  We want our readers to understand what we are saying (and what we mean to say), and so we have to choose our words carefully.  That is one of the reasons writers are often counseled to have a trusted friend or beta reader go over their manuscript.  New eyes may see things that were missed because we knew what we meant.

While there may be times when you as the writer, or a character in your story, wants to obfuscate words or meanings, most of the time that isn’t so.  Clearly clarity is needed.

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Say What?

I worked with someone once who did not have strong English/vocabulary skills.  Our boss would dictate memos about his client meetings, and she or I would transcribe the tape.  (Yes, ‘in the old days’ people dictated stuff onto tapes that got transcribed.  Imagine that.)  The problem was, our boss had an excellent vocabulary and used it when he spoke, but she couldn’t always recognize the word he was using.  When she heard a word unfamiliar to her, she would take her best guess at how it was spelled and let the computer ‘suggest’ possibilities.  But the computer was limited – it had no way of knowing the context or what word was wanted, so it just offered anything spelled similarly.  She would choose one at random, assuming it was correct.

When she would type up tapes for him, I always proofread them before they got filed, to hopefully correct any errors.  She would get so mad at me for laughing, but truly some of the word substitutions were hilarious.  Could you not laugh at “historical performance” being transformed into “hysterical performance”?

People are fond of relying on their computers to catch mistakes of spelling and grammar, and over the years the machines have become better at the job.  Even so, they don’t know what you mean to say, only what you seem to be saying.  Then they give you a ‘best guess’.  As the writer, it is your job to know you are using the correct words.  If you have any doubt whatsoever, look it up.  Does the definition given match what you meant?  If it doesn’t, then possibly you have a word that sounds or is spelled similarly, but not the word you mean.

Try variations of spellings until you find the one that matches.

You can also look at synonyms to sometimes find alternative words that more closely describe what you intend.  Just be careful, since not all synonyms are created equal.  They are ‘similar’ in meaning, but not necessarily identical.  You may need to check the meaning of the synonym before you use it, to be sure it expresses what you want.

Good luck, and may your next hysterical drama…er, historical drama be a bestseller.

May the Best Man Win!?

The story I just wrote was interesting.  Usually, the characters behave themselves and do what they are supposed to do.  In this case, the protagonist’s sidekick kept hogging the limelight.  To a certain extent, he was meant to, but he…got carried away.  I got carried away with him.  I liked the character and he was fun to write, but he was overshadowing the protagonist to the point that I knew readers would question why the love interest didn’t go for the sidekick instead of the protagonist.

Fortunately, I recognized that fairly early in the story and was able to dampen his role and bump up the protagonist so that he “made sense” as the lead.  The sidekick didn’t disappear entirely, but he became less present on the page and the protagonist was able to step forward and take his rightful place.

It is easy to fall in love with a character so much that we get carried away in making use of them, but if it isn’t their story, it won’t work.  Be sure people are doing what they need to do in order for the story to make sense.  If they aren’t, then maybe you aren’t telling the right story.

If X is the hero, let him, even make him, be the hero.  It may mean rewriting a lot of what you already have written down, but it is the only way for the story to work.  And, if you discover a more interesting story surfaces among the characters, then make the entire story shape around that.  Trying to force disparate elements together (character vs. story) just never works.  It confuses the reader and doesn’t accomplish your purpose.

Whatever you write, let the best man (or woman, or child, or creature) win.

An Infestation of Weasel (Words)

And here I thought I was better than this!

I noticed in my most recent work that two ‘weasel words’ had snuck in (a word that steals its way into your writing repeatedly), and carefully combed through the story to ferret them out.  (Sorry, bad pun.)  Fan fiction posts online by chapter, so fortunately I am only 3 chapters in, since I just noticed 4 more weasel words that need ruthless culling.

Weasels are sneaky creatures.  In and of themselves, the word is good, and probably you even used it correctly.  The problem arises when you use it (or some variation of it) over and over and over.  This is another reason for reading your finished story straight through from beginning to end – you are more apt to see such things so they can be fixed.  Well, most of the time.

If you notice you’ve used the same word three times, it might be a good idea to do a search for it.  And not just the exact word (unless it is very specific).  In my case, I have been using words that have ‘variations’ – for example:  consider/consideration, express/expression, press/impress/impression.  You get the idea.  In those cases, I can either search each variation separately, or  search a portion of the word that will pick up most of the different forms (such as ‘consider’, ‘impress’ or even just ‘press’ to pick up many more).

Time to get the pest control in order.  Weed out those rascally weasels.  Don’t let them infest your stories.

I Want Proof!

In fan fiction, you often see new writers posting things they’ve written without anyone else looking at it.  And, often, they themselves have weak writing skills.  No money is lost by posting such things online, but you do lose readership if people can’t get past the first page for all the mistakes.

Proofreading (or copy editing) is all the more critical if you intend to publish something professionally.  If you send a mistake-riddled manuscript to a publisher, I very much suspect they won’t bother reading it to completion either.  Your story may be great, it may be the next bestseller, but the reader won’t be able to find the story for all the errors.

Part of the problem is that writers often write in a vacuum.  They write it, they edit it, they proof it and then they’re “done”.  It gets sent to a publisher or self-published online and they wait for the readers and money to flow in.  I can’t even count the number of times I’ve read Amazon reviews that remark on how poorly written stories are – structure, editing, spelling, grammar.  Usually the reviewer couldn’t bring themself to even finish the book.  And those are NOT the kinds of reviews you want.  They certainly won’t encourage new readers to give your book a chance.

So, what do you do to hopefully clean up most, if not all, of the mistakes?  Read it, read it again, and again and again.  Then have at least one other person (that you know has strong English language skills) to read it over also.  No matter how good we are, we will always miss some of our own mistakes.

One of the things I do when proofreading for a friend is to do the first reading ‘straight through’.  Why?  Because I want to see the big picture, and I want to check for continuity and story progression.  I usually prefer to read a print copy and so I might circle in red any errors I spot along the way, but I keep reading.  I don’t stop and give lengthy notes about the problem then and there.  That disrupts the flow.  This can also be done on a computer screen – I simply highlight something and move on.  When I’m done, I can note general, overall impressions of the story, and then I can go back and give specifics for cleaning up any issues I spotted.

I recently proofed a book for a friend who self-publishes.  There were instances of repetitious use of a phrase (without a specific reason to do so).  They weren’t close to one another so they weren’t readily seen unless you read straight through.  There were also a couple of places where she seemed to change her mind on a certain element of the story (a door being opened), but in three separate places, the action varies:  it is opening, it isn’t opening.  All of those needed to be reconciled with each other.

What about dropped plot points?  I wrote a story once and was cranking right along, but this story tied to other stories I had written.  I had failed to check the timeline.  So I have a story going that is totally ignoring a significant event (a wedding) that would be taking place when and where the new story is occurring.  Luckily, I noticed before I finished the story, but it meant going back and rewriting a lot of pages to work that detail in.  As it happens, I am very good at proofing my own stories (I once worked as a proofreader so I tend to see mistakes before I see the whole picture, but I don’t publish professionally).  That being the case, I rarely have anyone else read my stories before I post them.  That slip-up of omitting a plot point would have shown up in the “finished” product, and I’m very sure one of my astute readers would have called me on it.  Embarrassing, yes, but it would also mean pulling the story down for a rewrite – not ideal.

You’ve been staring at your story for a long time.  The ideas and words have been written and rewritten several times (presumably).  Maybe you’re really tired of looking at it and just want to be done.  If so, set it aside for a while (a week, a month or whatever suits you) and then read it from scratch and see how it strikes you.  And, if at all possible, get a trusted friend to read it and give you feedback.

Your work will be the better for those final efforts at tidying it up.