Elizabeth Creith is an unrepentant word nerd, whose mother taught her, at the age of seven, never to say “enough” where “sufficient” would do. She blogs at Elizabeth Creith’s Scriptorium. She lives, writes and commits art in Wharncliffe, Northern Ontario, occasionally distracted by her husband, dog and two cats.
I’m a word nerd. I’ve always been a word nerd. I was a word nerd before the term “nerd” was invented. (In high school they called me “the Human Dictionary” when it wasn’t something less complimentary.) Word nerd, grammar geek, punctuation punk–all those labels, and more, apply to me. It comes as a stupendous surprise, every time, when I find out that my fellow writers are not, one and all, word nerds.
How can you be a writer and not be in love with language? Or at least, how can you be a writer and not have a relationship with your thesaurus which might be, at times, more intimate than your relationship with your significant other? I got my first thesaurus at thirteen, and the woman who suggested I get it had to explain to me that it wasn’t a dinosaur. As soon as I cracked the cover of that red paperback Roget’s–abridged, and the princessly sum of thirty-five cents in 1967–I was in love. Infatuated. Smitten. Captivated, charmed, enraptured, bewitched, and enamoured. Head over heels. You get the idea.
Writing is the process of finding the right words to convey your meaning. When I began to write flash I found that my vocabulary (which has been labeled “bionic”) was more than an interesting plaything. It was the verbal equivalent of a toolbox containing absolutely every size of socket wrench I might ever require. And my pen was the ratchet.
I started with fifty-five-word flash. I had no idea it came in any other size. Over the year or so after I discovered the form, I used my vocabulary to shoehorn every story I wanted to tell into the confines of those fifty-five words.
Here’s one of those early ones:
Take it philosophically
The gryphon Stormfeather was contemplating infinity when the human reached the valley.
“Dinner!” Stormfeather cried, pouncing.
“You can’t eat another sentient being!” shrieked the human.
“A novel philosophical concept,” admitted Stormfeather, “which we will discuss over dessert. I regret you won’t be joining us.” he added, leaning in for the kill.
Gryphons are creatures with a dual nature, used to symbolize Christ (because they combine the king of the birds and the king of the beasts) and the devil (because they’re rapacious predators). They’re also philosophical beasts, one of the Speaking Peoples. Here my idea was that the dual nature of a gryphon, predator and philosopher, would probably seesaw based on how hungry he was. I wanted to show this by giving him a dual problem to solve–here comes dinner, but it’s sentient.
The phrase “contemplating infinity” set the philosophical tone right off the bat. I chose “reached” because it suggests that the human has traveled specifically to this place, and not just come on it by accident. Valleys are surrounded by hills or mountains–the traveler is tired, easy prey, and maybe not expecting what’s coming. “Pouncing” reveals a particular kind of movement–swift, sharp and predatory.
Every time someone says something, I use a verb which reveals more than simply speech. Cried, shrieked, admitted, added. Stormfeather is triumphant over catching dinner, the human terrified and in pain; Stormfeather allows as the dinner has a point. The “we will discuss” gives a little hope to the victim. Maybe he’ll be around for dessert? The added “you won’t be joining us” takes it away again. The stomach wins.
The title is a pun on “take” as in “take prey” and “take” as in “accept.” The philosophical gryphon takes his prey, and the prey has to “take it” philosophically.
Now that I’ve beaten this story to death in many more words than it took to write, maybe you’ll say, “So? I’m not writing fifty-fives.”
Maybe you aren’t. But if you write flash at all, even thousand-word flash, you will, I guarantee, come to the point of having to find just a few more words to finish–and editors have those firm word limits. Or what if you have an eight-hundred-word story that needs to come down to seven-fifty? Start checking out those generic verbs; you can probably replace them and some of their adverbs, too, with a single well-chosen, specific verb.
Does your character hit another? Guaranteed you’ll need to use words to describe how, unless you make the hit do the work. Smack, slap, tap, slug, punch, deck (a lovely, economical word which can replace four or five!), roundhouse, jab, uppercut, slam, bop, biff, whack, spank. Each of these words gives you information about force and delivery, sometimes target, even effect. A slap is openhanded, painful but seldom damaging. An uppercut lifts the victim by ribcage or jaw. A bop could be playful. A spank is on the rear. You can save all kinds of words just by knowing one right one.
There are other advantages to word-nerdery. A friend of mine recently referred to “meretricious” (showily attractive but valueless) behaviour. Unfortunately, the word she wanted was “meritorious,” which means worthy of merit. The temptation to use fancy words is hard to resist, and there are many such similar-sounding pairs that have radically different meanings. (Consider the obligatory mention of “flaunt” and “flout” done here.) In one of my very first writers’ group meetings, someone offered the word “supercilious” in an exercise. When we read what we’d written, it was clear that everyone in the group, except the word nerd, had thought it meant “superfluous.” I’ve also recently seen “divaricated” used in a story; I looked it up because I wasn’t certain what it meant. It doesn’t mean“bifurcated,” which is what I bet most readers are going to think it means. If they don’t look it up, they may use it as a synonym for “bifurcated” themselves.
This leads to another problem. Misuse of a word, especially in writing, and especially by someone in the public eye, leads to misunderstanding of the word on a massive scale. Let’s take the word “normalcy.” which was erroneously used by Warren G. Harding in his election campaign.
The word he wanted was “normality”–the state of being normal. “Normalcy” is a mathematical term meaning “perpendicularity to a plane.” Big deal, you say? Yes, I say, big deal. The mistaken use of “normalcy” for “normality” not only grates on this word nerd’s nerves, it also impoverishes the language. Every time someone uses “deficit” to mean “deficiency,” we are losing the meaning of “deficit” (a gap between the budget available and the expenditures).
Get a dictionary. The Oxford microphotographed one is a fascinating resource, and comes with a magnifying glass. Get the full-sized, heavy-enough-to-double-as-a-blunt instrument Roget’s Thesaurus. Keep them near your writing instruments of choice and use them, use them, use them. Practice precision of language in the service of your art.
I guarantee you that you will only be a better writer for it.
For further reading, check out FlashFiction.Net’s suggested readings of flash fiction and prose poetry collections, anthologies, and craft books, by clicking here.