Basics of Writing: Words

The right words in the right order….the foundation of every phrase, every sentence, every paragraph, page, chapter, volume…is made of words.   In speech, the dictionary meaning of words is often less important than the physical speaker’s visual and auditory presence:  facial expression, not just one but several in sequence..gesture and posture–again, not just individually but the sequence, the tone of voice, the loudness of voice, the speed of utterance, the fluency or lack of fluency in the speech…all of these things affect the formal meaning of the words.    The same simple sentence can carry not only different shades of meaning but directly opposite meanings.   Takes, for instance,  “I don’t want to do that.”  Emphasize a different word each time you read it aloud:  I don’t want to do that.    I don’t want to do that.    I don’t want to do that.  I don’t want to  do that.    I don’t want to do that.    I don’t want to do that.   If you then imagine a ? at the end of each version and read again.  The words haven’t changed but the meanings are not the same.

But the meaning of words still matters, and the right words in the right order will improve your writing.  So…everybody has a dictionary and a thesaurus, right?   Yes, dictionaries are available online, but they’re better for looking up a word you’re not sure of when you read it.  We should all do that any time we’re not sure what the word means or if it’s spelled that way or another way.  For writing, we need dictionaries in an additional way: we need the nuances of the word’s meaning through time.  For that, we need a dictionary with more information about the word.  If you have a house the size of a really big library, and you happen to have collected historical dictionaries over the last 200 years, you can hunt through them for how words have been used over time.   Or…you can use a university or large city library–if one is available to you–and consult the big, multi-volume dictionary they have.  I did that in college, though I didn’t yet understand how useful it was to someone “just writing.”  And that historical dictionary, whose contributors have researched the history of every word …back down to the languages it came from and the usage through time…that historical research dictionary, for the English language is very likely to be the Oxford English Dictionary, the OED.   The Compact OED has been for decades the lower-cost alternative to the multi-volume version.  Harder to read, yes, with multiple pages per page, but the real stuff is in there.  If you’ve good youthful vision, it’s worth the price.   I’d still be using it if I could still use it.

The alternative, if you don’t live close enough to a big library or can’t get approved to have access–and as a freelance writer on a short budget living in a small town 50 to 100 miles from the nearest source–is to suck it up and buy your own OED.  I used to think that was impossible…and in a sense, it is except for the luckiest writers.   The current edition–with the flood of additional words in the last 45 years–is 20 volumes.  It takes 4 feet of shelf space at least, with them squished in.  The volumes are just over 13 inches tall, and need a shelf at least 10 inches deep.  There are older, used editions; this one has 13 volumes; you might find an older one with fewer.  I think I remember seeing a 10 volume set  back down the years but can’t swear to it.  This one was described as “near fine” condition and I haven’t seen any damage to it other than small changes in color of the edges of the pages–it’s been where some light and some oxygen could get to it, and it’s a 1978 printing–45 years old.   If you’re a serious scholar or writer, and you aren’t stuck in one of those tiny city apartments (in which case you  may well have access to an OED in a library)  then saving up for one is feasible.  Yes, it’s years of saving.  Yes, I have an OED in the room, right now, and have already spent several wonderful hours just letting my mind graze over a couple of pages in this volume, a couple of pages in that…what’s that word?  Wait, there’s TWO WHOLE PAGES on that other word?  Why?

And already, in just those few hours, just running around like a terrier in a field, sniffing here, digging there,  18 words…words I didn’t know at all, words I thought I knew thoroughly (ha!), words whose alternate meanings I hadn’t known, and whose derivation I certainly hadn’t known.   I thought I knew “stark” for example.  I knew some variant meanings…by no means all.  And those variant meanings color, or at least shade, the meanings I did know.  Those variant meanings and usages (when I’ve absorbed the several pages of them) will change how I use the word myself.  I haven’t used it in a meaning it didn’t already have, but I haven’t made use of its full chromatic range.

Writers benefit from a large vocabulary, not so that they can show off how smart they are or how educated–but so they can choose the right words in the right order to convey to readers what they want to convey, and so readers–meeting an unfamiliar word–can grasp from context what it means and something of its flavor.  Particularly in fiction, the right words make it easier for readers to imagine the fictional world, the fictional culture, the fictional character.   A thesaurus can help you find a bunch of words that relate to a concept you want to use (kindness, government, teaching, water)  and then you can explore those words, trying them out in your text, looking them up in the dictionary, until one suddenly slots itself into your current wip, the missing puzzle piece…it’s not sort-of what you meant, or the first word that came to you, but a deliberate choice and you know WHY it fits there.

No resource is infallible…I asked my naval consultant if he knew what a fife-rail was (he did) and he told me about another term I’d never heard: “baggywrinkle”…so I went looking for it in my new research set.  I found baggyminnow, but not baggywrinkle.  So now I have a word new to me that the OED doesn’t have.  Or this edition doesn’t have.   (Baggywrinkle: a length of cordage frayed out and then coiled around a specific spot on a sailing vessel’s rigging that contacts the sail at some point of sailing, so that the contact is softened and doesn’t fray the sail prematurely.   And I certainly hope I’ve described it correctly, because I’m sure someone will correct me if I didn’t.)    Since I write rarely about sailing and have people who know a lot more check stuff when I have to get a character somewhere by water, I don’t think I’lll *need* baggywrinkle, but you never know.   I do know there are words in the new volumes that I will need as long as I keep writing, and I know that prowling around in there is not just procrastinating, playing n the rabbit holes, wasting time, but absorbing the very stuff–the language, the words–that I make stories out of.

Very happy little word-terrier tonight.   I’m very lucky to have been able to bring this treasure home.   A fife rail–where the fifer sits as the anchor’s drawn up.  A luddock–a bullock’s buttock, when the butcher cuts up the carcase.   To lue is to sift through a screen.   A hop-d0g is not a dog that hops up and down, but a tool for removing the poles from a field of hops, with a knife for cutting off the hop vine and a hook for yanking the pole out of the ground.  Antelope do stot–bounce along hitting the ground and rebounding with all four legs at once–but any rebounding motion is also stotting (in dancing, for instance.)  A hoppet can be a benign enclosure for a pony or a sheep–a paddock–or it can be a place to confine criminals.    That row of cream-colored volumes, is a place to let the mind wander freely, all the way back to Old Saxon and Old Norse, and from all the corners of the world where English speakers have snagged a new word and brought it home and found a use for it.  (Words are still available to their original speakers; unlike stolen artwork, artifacts, etc.)



11 thoughts on “Basics of Writing: Words

  1. question – unless you were to define strange words or usages, while the word might be correct is the average reader of sufficient knowledge to get it? The word usage might be correct but the reader would just scratch his head.

    1. Much depends on the reader’s level of interest in what they’re reading. Someone taking a required class–perhaps a topic they’re not interested in that much–will not put as much thinking into understanding an unfamiliar word as a someone for whom the content of the writing is of great interest. I have observed this with people I’ve known, kids I’ve tutored, kids I taught in a class, and of course in myself.

      Fiction–beyond assigned fiction in literature classes–is normally a *chosen* story, often because the reader knows/hopes that it will fit their pre-existing interest. For kids, the desired interest-hook is likely to be an activity and its context–horses, baseball, competition swimming, etc. A kid who’s a fan of an activity will quickly and willingly figure out what unfamiliar terms related to it means. I knew a woman in her thirties who had serious difficulty reading…had dropped out of school in I think 8th grade. She was also crazy about horses and had bred them. I found she had read and understood a highly technical book on horse training by a German trainer–the language offers no easy entrance. We discussed it (I’d also read it) and she understood all the technical terms. There were some simple line drawings, but connecting all the technical words to their meanings was not just a matter of a glance at a drawing.

      An even more startling example. A woman who worked in the local small grocery store as a checkout clerk had left school in 8th or 9th grade because her mother had cancer and she needed to care for her mother and younger siblings. Now she was grown, unmarried, with a 14 yo daughter of her own. She read my first book; several people in town who didn’t usually read books did. As you know, not a short book and not a book that explained every word that a school dropout who had lived at the bottom of the economic ladder for years in a small town might be thought not to know.

      One day while I was buying groceries, she asked me about the book, specifically a word she hadn’t seen before and thus didn’t know. She had tried to figure it out from the surrounding story—and in fact she *had* worked out the meaning from context–and wondered if she was right. I told her she was, and that it meant her reading skills were quite advanced. She read the rest of the Deed of Paksenarrion as the other volumes came out, clearly enjoyed them, and then one day asked me if I thought she might be able to pass the GED and thus get a certificate and access to a better job. I encouraged her. There was already a GED group around, and by then I had an autistic kid to care for, so I was not her tutor…but she took off like a rocket. Finished her GED. Started night classes at the nearest community college. Got her 2 year degree then (having already a better job in a nearby larger town) finished off a 4 year degree. She had told me she was worried her daughter would get pregnant and drop out of HS, but once she started to continue her own education, her daughter took hold and also finished HS and went to college.

      If–as some librarians used to do–she’d been restricted to reading only books at her “grade level” and presumed “reading level” would she ever have had that boost of confidence from figuring out a word by context on her own? She read the DEED for the story–the story pulled her along; she worked at the unfamiliar stuff because she was interested, she liked the story, the characters. Reading a story written for people who were educated adults (what I’d thought of as my target audience) meant that her reading level advanced to match the books she liked. Her vocabulary expanded. Then she could move on. Several other people who talked to me about the books–initially reading them simply because they had met me and had never met anyone who wrote a book–also discovered that they *liked reading now*. One person told me they’d never read an entire book before and were there any other books like mine, that they might like?

      I was startled. It was the start of my second journey of discovery of how our educational system fails people. But the average reader,*if interested enough* will figure out enough of what some unfamiliar words mean to follow the story…and gain confidence. I did the same thing, though younger.

    2. Jonathan, a reader might scratch their head, but in my case there is a great deal of interest. if I can’t make a mental image of the word, I look it up. As a result, my hard copies of the Paladin’s Legacy bundle have acquired annotations of various kinds to help me remember what I learned. One of them is a sketch of a warrior wearing a “tabard”. I had a vague notion of what such a thing might look like, but needed more info to create an image in my head. I looked up the word, then drew the sketch.

  2. I was hoping you were diving in to your new research and renewal resouce 🙂 May it give you many years of pleasure.

  3. I’m having difficulty making myself pack for ArmadilloCon because…there it sits, emitting tempting suggestions of what I could be learning if I’d just stay home and spend time with that community of scholars.

  4. Wow, I am impressed by your answer – of course your books are dense and are not throw a way summer reading, but to think that people are actually inspired to learn is something to be really happy about. The Nero Wolfe books always through in a new and interesting word.

    1. I remember the first time I read a Leslie Charteris (The Saint) book and ran into “chatoyance”…my school dictionary didn’t have it, but the unabridged one at home did. I loved the look of that word, and the feel of it in my mouth, even more than the meaning the dictionary gave me.

  5. Yesterday I was working on a short fiction revision and automatically used the word “shambles” and then paused. Was it the right word, the right setting for that word, the right overall mood of that word? My automatic association was with butchery–the smells, in pafticular, but…was it really the place of killing and butchering, or…how did it get from whatever the parts of it meant before, to that?

    So I walked over to the OED, pulled out S to SOLDO, and flipped my way to shambles. Whereupon I found out that its background was bench to table to table for display for sale to tables and stalls for display of meat. It didn’t *start* with meat…it finished with meat (at least in that usage…it has others. But…to get meat cut up in salable pieces, you have to have the slaughter…somewhere. Behind the stalls of meat for sale in a market are the places where the killing happens…and the offal that isn’t sold dealt with (however it IS dealt with, which varies.) How far “behind” varies with the technology and the size of the animals being killed and cut up.

    From personal experience I can say that dealing with a several chickens is very different from dealing with a young sheep, which is very different from dealing with a young heifer and that likewise very different from dealing with an adult and very large bull. For the larger animals it *really* helps to have professional modern equipment: with a sheep or a goat, (most deer around here are in that size range, too), some good knives and maybe an axe are enough. For the bull, even having a good big electric meat saw and a sizeable electric meat grinder were not really enough. A walk-in cooler with chain-lift and rails would’ve been better.) The heifer would’ve been almost easy with the meat saw and grinder, but was a struggle with just the knives we had. Chickens…no problems at all once you know how to gut them cleanly. Skin (I loathe plucking feathers & pinfeathers) , quickly quarter, and either chill for freezing for later, or start the soup right away with plenty of onion, celery, carrot, garlic, parsley, etc.

    But anyway: yes, in the pre-refrigeration times, and especially in summer, the shambles of a market would have abundant odors most moderns think horrible but that would be familiar to those doing the shopping. Killing would be done closer to the point of sale; lack of refrigeration would keep the smells circulating. Most cultures made more use of internal organs and more body parts than most of us do now. And the resemblance to the smells of combat would in the early stages be similar–fresh blood, fresh meat, and the other less…acceptable smells.

    I have been grateful since it happened that my grandfather calmed my early-childhood panic about blood, when he’d stabbed his thumb accidentally on a big agave spike.

    “Shambles” stayed in the story.


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