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- E. B. Davis
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Please contact E. B. Davis at firstname.lastname@example.org for information on guest blogs and interviews.
Tuesday, November 14, 2023
What I Mean Is... by KM Rockwood
It probably happens to all of us occasionally.
But when we’re writing, we have to keep in mind the little detail that we do want our writing to be understood by our readers.
Sometimes I’m surprised at words I use that are part of my working vocabulary but trip up my critique partners. Familiar words can have multiple meanings, and that can throw our readers off, too.
We all have some specialized terms that come from our own experience, and it can be hard to figure out when we need to help our readers to understand what we’re saying without slowing the story down.
The first time I seriously encountered that problem was in a short story about a homeless veteran who had built a shelter under a bridge approach. I mentioned something tumbling down the riprap to the water.
Surely everyone knows what riprap is.
But a couple members of my critique group questioned it.
It’s the rocks or stone placed on a steep bank to control erosion. (Everyone knows what a bank, as used here, is. Right?)
I set myself a rule of thumb. If one person questions a word, I go back and make sure it is commonly understood in the way I intend.
If two or more people question it, I either change the word or add contextual clues.
Sometimes I know I need to provide the clues when I want to use a word. If a character is going to wait by the “voe,” I’ll add, “where a finger of the sea pierces the rugged shore.” I’m less certain that I need to supplement “on the ebb” with the clue that it’s when the tide goes out, but I’ll do it anyhow.
In an industrial/warehouse setting served by railroads, I know that if my protagonist is going to end up locked in a “reefer,” I’d better explain that it’s a refrigerated boxcar with a finite oxygen supply. But how many people will not know what a railroad “siding” is? Some, apparently, especially if it ends in a “spur.”
Also in an industrial setting, when a victim is sent through a “powdercoat booth and oven,” emerging painted orange and very dead at the end of the processing line, I know I’d better do some setup about how powdercoat painting and finishing works before we get to that point.
An example often used is the poor fellow who has a shouting match in public with his girlfriend, including issuing threats to “take care of” her, and storms out. When he seeks her out to apologize, he finds her stabbed to death on the floor of their apartment. In his horror, he picks up the knife used to kill her. At that moment, the police arrive to find him standing over her with the murder weapon in his hand.
His best bet may very well be an Alford plea. One of the drawbacks of such a plea is that, if he denies having killed her, he can’t express remorse to the parole board. And the parole board is looking for remorse.
How about “toggle switch” or “coal breaker” or “homeplace?” To me, they sound like common terms, but some critique partners have questioned them.
I’d hate to leave my readers on “tenter hooks” (those are hooks used to stretch wool or linen fabric on a tenter frame while it dries, and so referring to someone left anxiously hanging. Definitely not “tender hooks”) about what’s happening in the story.
Words with multiple meanings, like the aforementioned “bank,” can cause problems, too. I once had a real go-round with an editor on the word “start.” Of course it can mean “begin.” But it can also be used “with a start” in the context of startle. I try to save my arguments with editors for important issues, so I just changed the phrase.
But it does raise the question: can we have a fleeing character who, upon encountering an unexpected obstacle, “stops with a start?”
Can you remember instances in which you had to pause your reading to figure out what an author meant?