Man, I Love Words

Yvonne Hertzberger

Author Yvonne Hertzberger

As writers, words are our currency, an unfortunate term perhaps, considering so few of us can actually eke out a living with them.

Yesterday, on LinkedIn a few of us pondered the correct way to spell a word. (wet-stone, whetstone, wetstone – you get the idea). That was fun and got me thinking about words. I remembered my grade eleven English class. Our assignment was to write a short story. I wrote one I was proud of. It had great characters, a gripping plot and lots of tension. Even the setting added to the tone. Now, I liked that teacher, respected her. And she gave me a good mark, 80% I think. Her only critique was that my prose was “terse”. I was crushed. One single-syllable word and nothing else mattered.

I came across that little story years later and found that I still really liked it. So why had my teacher felt it was too “terse”? That got me thinking about how we use words when we write, about style, and even about vocabulary. It really has only been since my first book received such encouraging feedback that I began to understand that it is our unique way of putting together our words that creates our individual style. And I have come to understand that our style of writing often matches the kind of books we enjoy reading.

Some people love long, flowery descriptions that let them immerse themselves in a scene. They love adjectives that create detailed pictures. My other half is one of these. He loves poetic, detailed descriptive passages. Perhaps it is because he is a poet and creatively crafted images speak to him. I think my old English teacher must also have been one of these.

A couple of years ago I read Nino Ricci’s “Origin of Species” a book he received the Governor General’s Award for, one of the most prestigious awards in Canada. But I could not get into it. It was beautifully written and I have no doubt that it is ‘great literature’, but I didn’t like it. I found myself skipping over his descriptive passages to try to find the story and the characters again. Sure, let me know where I am. Give me an idea of the terrain, or the feel for the scene, but then let me fill in the details myself.  And that is how I write.

Every now and then I get caught up in the hype that I need to add more description and give it a try. I usually end up with something I am not satisfied with. It just isn’t me. It comes out sounding forced and awkward. So I am learning to listen to my gut and use descriptions only if they feel like they belong.

Which leads me to another thought about words -as in vocabulary. Now I know I have a great vocabulary. Better than my poet husband, if I do say so myself – and I do, even to him. He takes it rather well, I must say. But I feel no need to show it off in my writing. I have read books that required even me to keep a dictionary handy. I often stop reading because I don’t enjoy them, especially if they are works of fiction. And so I take my cue from myself and resist the urge to show off. Now that is not to say that writers who use a more challenging vocabulary ARE showing off. Some create works of true beauty and inspire my admiration. But some do show off and I can always tell. When that happens I soon lose interest because it simply doesn’t work. It breaks the flow of the story and takes me out of the picture. I no longer identify with the work. If I read a novel which is aimed at a general audience and find it riddled with obscure language, I know that it will not give the reader the entertainment they expect. They are being cheated.

I know who I am writing for. At least I think I do. And so I stick to words that my readers can understand without the need to go to a dictionary every few pages. Neither do I dumb down my language. I don’t make it too easy. That would be disrespectful of my readers’ intelligence.

Sometimes there is only one particular word that will do. To try to change it would cause my work to lose some of its colour, its impact, its ‘literacy’. So I use that word. While I try to make sure that readers will, for the most part, be able to get the general intent from the context, there may be occasions where a dictionary might be helpful – not necessary – but helpful. And if they learn a new word then I have contributed to the expansion of their vocabulary. In the end it’s all about balance and respect.

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Yvonne Hertzberger is a Contributing Author at Indies Unlimited and author of Back From Chaos and Through Kestrel’s Eyes, Books One and Two of Earth’s Pendulum, an Epic fantasy trilogy. For more information please see the IU Bio page and her blog at  http:/yvonnehertzberger.com[subscribe2]

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About Yvonne Hertzberger

Yvonne Hertzberger is a native of the Netherlands who immigrated to Canada in 1950. She is an alumna of The University of Waterloo, with degrees in psychology and Sociology The first two volumes of her Fantasy trilogy, ‘Earth’s Pendulum’ have been well received and the third is on the way. Learn more at her blog and her Amazon author page.

24 thoughts on “Man, I Love Words

  1. It's amazing what we can do with words. Build castles in the air, demolish hope, raise Cain.

    I used to try and coin a new word in my new novels – it's the reader's job to try and find it… a word that does not exist, yet. It's not really fair on editors, so I stopped.

    I once used 'spalancated' – Italians would understand what it means. But it caused anxiety among my first readers. It's like teasing.

    Perhaps I could do it just once more.

  2. I like your concept of "balance and respect." It is often tempting to toss in a few "show-off" words, but clarity in writing is crucial so the writer can connect with the reader. We can use our "show-off" words while playing Scrabble. :)

  3. First of all – it's whetstone ;-) Can't help myself; I'm an editor.

    Secondly – I always love books that make me look up and learn new words, but I understand how it can get annoying if you have to keep stopping to check a dictionary. That's one reason I love my e-readers :-) Anyway, when I was in English class – I don't remember if it was 9th, 10th or 11th grade, as I had the same teacher all three years (actually, I had him in 8th, too, now I think about it, so it could have been as early as then …)- I wrote a story and used the word "chortled" and my teacher thought I'd made it up. so I had him look it up and sure enough, there it was right there in the dictionary. I have no idea what book I had read that gave me that word, which my English teacher in all his years had never come across.

    Great post – thanks!

      • Well, I often noticed the teachers being wrong – most of them took it with good humour, but at least one woman disliked me immensely after I discovered her teaching the class something directly opposite what was in the book. I am fairly sure my classmates pretty much considered me a know-it-all, but I was just trying to make sure they didn't get screwed on the tests; you KNOW the teacher would have the CORRECT info on the test, despite what was taught in class. Just trying to look out for folks, y'know? *sigh* I'm so misunderstood … X-D

  4. Teachers aren't always right! My son wrote a play in grade 12 based on our mad homelife trying to run a B&B. Every incident he wrote about actually happened, in fact he toned some of them down a bit for the young audience. lol

    The teacher's response was that he should write something a bit more believable. He's a playwright now but he can't bear to go back to that play and polish it up because he was so crushed at the time.

    I can't be bothered with descriptions either but I do make up the occasional word. I like to think they are onomatopoeic (is that a word?) enough for the meaning to be clear.

      • I know, as an editor, that I try to mix criticism with praise and humor so as not to upset the person for whom I'm editing. I try to do the same with my reviews – authors should develop thick skins, but I try not to be the one to cause that scar tissue to develop.

  5. Thanks for such a helpful article. The number one hindrance to study and learning is the misunderstood word. And you described its effect beautifully. No wonder readers drop a book when there are too many misunderstood words. It only take one for the reader to lose the entire meaning of what he/she is reading. Confusion sets in, the meaning of the story is lost, interest wains, and the reader eventually gives up.

    One thing I LOVE about my Kindle is that a dictionary search is built into it. So if you come across a word whose meaning is unclear, then by highlighting that word the Kindle looks up the word and shows you its definition. Very cool! Don't have to ever read past a misunderstood word again.

    Also … good advice for authors, I believe, is to leave the complicated, little-used words out of your work. I know I consciously try to "keep it simple" when writing, because I don't want to encumber my reader with a misunderstood word.

    Thanks again for the article.

      • I should temper my viewpoint a bit by stating that a writer should write at the literacy level of his/her audience. I write novels, which is meant more for the general public. So that's one of the reasons why I don't want to put little-used or flowery words in my book.

        It's really about communicating at a "wave-length" that your readers can connect to. It's interesting to consider words in times past. I am a fan of English period films, and am enthralled at the language used during that period in history. Did people really speak that way? Did they understand each other? You would only evoke blank stares in today's world if you communicated that way. Does this mean we are on a downward spiral? Were people more intelligent then than now?

        Interesting, the technology of words. Guess that's why I love to write.

        • Yes, Richard, you would get blank stares. I frequently did over the years, as I love using a unique vocabulary. My first husband was unappreciative of this quirk of mine, and one say I told him "why be verbose when you can be taciturn, right?" and he said "talk English, would you?" to which I made a caveman face and said "ugh ugh ugh". Well, we were stoned at the time, too, so that was really hilarious to us … But it was just a single instance of something I've dealt with my whole life.

          Of course, when I began training for journalism, they encouraged us to write at about a 5th grade level, which is apparently the currently considered "common denominator" level to which most people ascribe. Which is sad – I don't think I've read at a 5th grade level since I was in 2nd grade …

          • Ha, funny story! And yes, sad. So it seems society in general is in a downward spiral.

            Guess the concept of communications applies to relationships as well. Probably you are happier with someone who isn't a caveman :)

  6. I agree with all the comments.

    The English language is as sharp as a surgeon's scalpel, it is not easy to learn and even a higher challenge for those who have a different native background like myself.

    It took me good 15 years of study in depth of the Shakespeare language to feel confident enough to write a book in English; to transfer all my writing skills and journalistic experience from German and Spanish to be able to offer readers my work in the universal language.

    It is certainly a paradox that now I sometimes have to write in plane, user friendly English for the masses.

    Depending on what we write and who our readers are is how we should present our books. As a nonfiction author I am "allowed" to use a little more sophisticated and technical language from the vast vocabulary we have at hand.

    Thank you for sharing Yvonne

  7. Words can be so elusive at times, and I couldn't live without my Thesaurus when I need a word with a particular nuance. Sometimes I have to rummage through a pile of words before I get the one that is just right. But it's fun working with words. As Rosanne said, you can do so much with them.

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