Thursday, November 4, 2010

A word about word choices & cash for teeth

The first time I recall obsessing over word choice was a letter to the Tooth Fairy.

I was seven or eight or whatever age you are when you lose the last of your baby teeth and the last of your belief that a winged creature will sneak into your room and swap your blood-flecked molar for a few quarters.

I remember sitting at my desk with my Hello Kitty pencil as I grappled with the message I wanted to convey. I knew my parents were the Tooth Fairy. I also knew they’d been mumbling that money was tight. I didn’t know what that meant exactly, but figured I shouldn’t strain the family coffers by expecting a handout.

On the other hand, I wanted those quarters.

I can’t recall the precise wording of my note, except that I needed to choose between using the word “anyway” or “anyhow” in a sentence suggesting the Tooth Fairy didn’t have to leave me money.

“Anyway” was casual and breezy, and carried a genuine sense of ambivalence about the cash.

“Anyhow” had a forlorn tone, a hint of self-sacrifice. Was that what I wanted to express? Or did it sound melodramatic and manipulative?

I don’t actually remember what I decided. Neither does my mom, who dug through all her old boxes in search of Tooth Fairy notes. She didn’t find the one I just described, though she did unearth this gem:

While I won’t claim I was a child prodigy of an author, I’m surprised to look back now and realize I grasped something pretty important in my anyhow/anyway debate – word choice does matter.

I'm no expert, but here are three tips I can offer when it comes to wise word use:

Watch for unnecessary words. I was aghast the first time someone pointed out how often I used “that” without needing to. Sentences often flow better without it. I knew that he wanted to hump my leg sounds clunkier than I knew he wanted to hump my leg. Search your manuscript and see if you’re a “that” abuser.

Wage an adverb war. I’m not one of those adverb Nazis who insists on eliminating any word that ends in “ly,” but I do keep tabs on my usage. If I find a lot of adverbs creeping into my writing, it generally means I’m getting lazy and “telling” instead of “showing.” Remember when we talked about that?

Learn when to obsess and when to knock it the hell off. Sometimes I catch myself fretting over every little word in a manuscript. I refer to this as "time to drink." Be cautious and deliberate in your word use, but learn when to shut off your internal editor and just let words flow. You can always go back and fix things later, but if you can’t find the right word in the moment, there’s no shame in substituting LKJLKJ (my personal favorite).

Do you have any words to live by when it comes to word choices in writing? Please share.

Oh, and for the record, the Tooth Fairy left the money. The bitch knows how to put out.*

* My mom is going to wash my mouth out with soap for that, but it was totally worth it.

23 comments :

Suz said...

Wow! Perfect spelling even as a child :)

Laina said...

Seven or eight??? I didn't lose my first tooth until I was six or seven. And I STILL have baby teeth and I'm turning 18... though those are freaks of nature that need to be removed... but still! You went through your teeth fast!

Leona said...

PSsst: that's also the Nanowrimo secret. If you have written a large amount of prose, word choices are an automatic debate that is quickly resolved. Usually without you consciously aware of it.

However, if you find yourself stuck. substituting a nonsense word is better than a word that's "close" to the one you want. Why? Well, if you're close enough, your brain might stall in trying to find a new one. Or, and I know how far fetch this one may seem, you might get lazy and leave it!

In Nanowrimo, mark these with a comment (In Word you might think the red underline is enough, but not for me!) and go back to them later. :D

PS Is this the normal time I have to read your blog to be under the 50 mark for comments?

Sarah W said...

Someone over at the Nanowrimo site once posted, "You don't have to get it down right, just write it down now."

I like that.

It's oddly reassuring to know other people get stuck on word choices! I use "XXX" in red for those times when my brain stutters over a word (or a character's name, or something I need to research). It's difficult to miss when I go back to edit . . . well, difficult for my betas, anyway . . .

Matthew Rush said...

Ah. Hello Diction my old friend ...

And yes, being a little drunk can help to loosen the pen.

Linda G. said...

Awwww. You were obviously born to be a writer. :)

When a scene I'm writing is moving along too fast to obsess about every word, I pepper it with [??]s, and go back later to fill them in. Or sometimes I'll bracket a word I THINK I might want to use, but I'm not [completely] (hmm...maybe I should use "entirely") sure.

Candyland said...

HA! Funny you still rebel when you're all grown up! I've never boozed while writing. I should give it a whirl. And my Tooth Fairy never left much more than a quarter or something...

Brenda Sedore said...

Debating over word choice can seriously interrupt the flow of writing. I will either leave a comment or let myself find it during edits. I will usually catch it then. It's more important to me to get the flow of the piece down. Then I'll go back later and find the perfect words.

That was a cute note! Your penmanship was very good at a young age. :-)

Steven said...

Better than a note from the Tooth Fairy.

Catch the real Tooth Fairy whenever that next tooth pops out.

Free with code ($10 value): Fairy-Proof

http://www.iCaughtTheToothFairy.com

Danica Avet said...

Wow, I was an ungrateful witch. I never left a note for the Tooth Fairy! I don't think I even wrote a letter to Santa. I suppose I figured if they knew I lost a tooth, or if I was good or bad, they'd know I was glad for whatever they gave me.

Word usage...oh yes, I've had to learn not to use it. Um, it still creeps in, but I'm getting better. Meh. My poor critique partners!

Kristi Helvig said...

The tooth fairy in our house was a little brain-dead last week. We'd run out of gold dollars that are the fairy trademark in our house, so I grabbed a pile of quarters in haste. He was befuddled as to why the tooth fairy left a single Chuck E. Cheese token with his money. Oops.

Penelope said...

You were awesome even as a kiddo!

This is great, helpful post. Thanks!

Patty Blount said...

I lost my first tooth - literally lost it when I was 5 and it was pulled out by whatever I was eating. I think it was an apple.

We never found it and I was crushed. How would the tooth fairy know about me!

I wrote her a note assuring her I wasn't lying. I really did lose my tooth. I slipped it under my pillow, and found a dollar there the next morning with a reply! "She" said she knew I wasn't lying because she "saw" what happened.

I was the best-behaved kid you ever saw after reading that note.

Laura Riley said...

I wrote a letter to the Tooth Fairy because I had lost, as in misplaced, the tooth and couldn't leave it under my pillow. I was terrified that I would be stiffed. My mother still has the note somewhere.

I am big on word choice too and have gotten in the habit of highlighting things I am unsure of, so I can go back and read them later. Sometimes, the only reason you don't like your initial word choice is because you have been over-thinking it.

I also run a search for the words that I abuse when I finish something. My word-drug of choice varies between just and that.

Colene Murphy said...

I love how thoughtful you were as a kid. I don't remember thanking the tooth fairy! Nice manners.

I obsess over taking words out I don't need, just like "that". I like to watch sentences change and flow without words for some weird reason.

dirtywhitecandy said...

I'm a 'that' ditherer. I put them in, take them out, and next time I read the piece I put them back in. I'm also far too fond of 'suddenly' and 'the next moment', and now do specific searches for them. Great post, you speak the tooth :)

Jennifer X said...

I was going through boxes in the basement and actually found the doll I used to collect the money from the tooth fairy for me. She would sit on the bed with an envelope holding my tooth, and there was always some monetary amount left in place of the tooth in the morning. Very organized. I actually have a container with all my baby teeth, so she must have returned them for me to resell or something. :)

Great advice on the word choice too. I used to butcher "nice" and "things" in school. It's so hard to let go of that favorite go to word. But, like you said, can't be lazy!

Tawna Fenske said...

Suz, LOL, I'm the offspring of two teachers :)

Laina, I couldn't remember the exact age, but my mom seemed fairly sure I started losing them at six or seven and was done around eight. Could be off by a year or two, but that seems about right.

Leona, it's also the thought behind #1k1hr, which looooove! LOL on reading my blog early vs. late. Comments have been slow this week with everyone doing NaNo. Sometimes I get ambitious and write the night before so it posts first thing in the morning, and other times I don't start writing 'til 7 a.m. PST the morning of.

Sarah, I like that sentiment, too! I used to use XXX, but then it got tricky when I was writing LET IT BREATHE (which stars a hero who owns a male strip club) and sometimes I actually needed to use XXX as a real part of the story.

Matthew, LOL, I don't usually suggest getting flat out hammered to write, though a glass or two of wine does help turn off the internal editor!

Linda G, ooh, brackets are nice. I like Word's highlighter feature a lot, too.

Candyland, sloppy drunk doesn't work so well for writing, but I do think a glass or two of your favorite adult beverage can be a good way to switch your mind-set on occasion.

Brenda, I was always a big note writer, even as a kid. Got me into trouble as a teen though :)

Steven, even though I know this is an auto-generated spam comment, I'm leaving it here because it's kind of funny.

Danica, yeah, I had the thank you note thing drilled into my head at a young age. Even now, I start to twitch if I don't immediately send thank you notes for gifts.

Kristi, hey, you never know when that Chuck-E-Cheese token will come in handy!

Penelope, glad you found it useful!

Patty, Santa is watching you, too.

Laura, I love the highlighter function in Word. I use different colors for different things.

Colene, you can credit my parents for the manners :)

dirtywhitecandy, my critique partners are great at nailing me for overused words, but find/replace is handy, too.

Jennifer X, you can make a necklace with those teeth!

Thanks for reading, guys!
Tawna

Jan Markley said...

Cute note! You knew enough to keep it short and sweet. I have to watch for over use of the word 'just'.

Valerie Geary said...

Love your third tip! Love it so much I want to snuggle with it under a pile of blankets. :)

Trisha Leigh said...

Good reminders, Tawna. And nice note. I love it.

Claire Dawn said...

Your note reminded me of all my awesome bloggy friends, present company included.

"I have never seen you, but I still like you!"

:)

Matthew AT Banning said...

I'm sure all writers have had the "that" issue. I'm still discovering ones I can kill off!

My greatest issue (even worse than that) is my disregard for pronouns! I seem to have this issue with the words: he, she, they, the boy, the girl, the kids ...ect. I constantly keep putting down character names for everything I write. It gets very repetetive ...