Shannon Stacey

Get thee to a wordsmith…or not

Alison asked the question “Can wordsmithing get in the way of the story?” My immediate answer was “Indubitably.”

My answer came from my perception of the question: will overly-crafted fifty-dollar words beloved by the author get in the way? Yes. Indubitably.

But… if wordsmithing is the deliberate crafting of words for effect, then it goes either way. Wordsmithing can make prose sound stilted and false, or it can raise an otherwise okay piece of writing to a whole new level. This is especially true in dialogue, and vital to comedic dialogue.

Every time I watch Toy Story–and with 4 & 9 year old boys, that’s often–I’m struck by one particular line. I laugh every time, and it has to be in the wordsmithing.

After discovering that he is merely an action figure, a hopeless and dejected Buzz is found by the little girl, dressed in an apron, and set into a tea party which includes a headless doll. When Woody finds him and asks “What happened to you?” Buzz’s answer could have been:

I’m having a tea party. Or

I really am just an action figure, so I’m having tea with my headless friend over here.

Instead, Buzz replies:

One minute you’re defending the whole galaxy, and suddenly you find yourself sucking down Darjeeling with Marie Antoinette and her little sister.”

That line is perfect, and it’s all in the words and details. It had to have been very deliberately crafted with words chosen and discarded for maximum effect. So, can wordsmithing get in the way of the story? Yes. Can wordsmithing make the story? Also yes. What does wordsmithing mean to you?

12 comments to “Get thee to a wordsmith…or not”

  1. Alison
      · February 23rd, 2005 at 10:21 pm · Link

    Ooooh, could I go on and on and on and on and on about this FOREVER! Instead, because I am incredibly lazy and fighting a sinus migraine, I’m going to cut and paste the comments I made to myself earlier *gg* – and only because of being familiar with my own work and it’s easy to use it as an example!

    In my upcoming Blaze, my hero is a record producer, so when in his viewpoint, he thinks things like this:

    He simply tuned her out, shut down the volume, left her running as background noise, a soundtrack while he waited.

    There were so many things he wanted to know about her, to ask, to hear her tell him in that soft Oklahoma voice. He didn’t know which to queue up and which to save for a day when the pickings were slim.

    To, me those examples are what wordsmithing means to me. That every word is carefully chosen – not to be a dollar word when a nickel one will do. But because it is the ONLY word that will work with that character and in that circumstance.

    There is a reason I’m on my second Rodale’s Synonym Finder! The same reason I can spend an hour on a paragraph to get it to work. For me as an author, the words have to do double, triple, quadruple duty in a scene.

    Otherwise, the story is pancake flat!

  2. Emily
      · February 23rd, 2005 at 10:55 pm · Link

    I love what Alison says, and the Buzz quote, BUT, I think that too often “wordsmithing” goes over the top.

    I’ve read 3 (yes, three) books in the past week and a half that used the word “verity.” It pulled me out of the story every time, and after the 3rd time I read it, I had to go look it up.

    I don’t mind learning new words, but at the same time, I don’t like being pulled out of the story. Careful crafting is essential, BUT not to the expense of other things (like pulling your reader out of the story.)

  3. Sylvia Day
      · February 23rd, 2005 at 11:30 pm · Link

    Good craft should be so good you don’t even notice it. It should fade into the woodwork and allow the story to shine. If the wordsmithing is what is drawing attention, there’s something wrong. :grin:

  4. Alison
      · February 24th, 2005 at 9:32 am · Link

    Well, not to disagree with Sylvia, but I do, LOL! As a reader, I LOVE when I read a section of prose that hits me so hard I want to read it again. But I also realize most readers aren’t like me.

    What this has taught me, however, is not to generalize. I’ve heard for years that if the writing brings you out of the story, it’s not working. I don’t agree because I’ve heard too many others who feel as I do!

  5. Shannon
      · February 24th, 2005 at 9:41 am · Link

    I think, for me, it depends on WHY I’ve been pulled out of the story.

    Like Emily, I’d be pulled out of the story by ‘verity’ (because I don’t know what it means with certainty, either), and that would annoy me to no end.

    But if I’m pulled out of the story because, like Alison said, I want to read it again, that’s a good thing. When I read Jennifer Crusie–especially Fast Women–I’m constantly stopping to reread her dialogue. It’s that snappy. Whether it’s the reader in me admiring the wordsmithing, or the writer in me subconsciously studying how she does it, I couldn’t say.

    But Alison’s passage in the record producer’s POV is something I’d already marked down in my editing notes. Going through and making sure his thoughts use references he’d use and the same for the heroine–who’s obviously very different. And to make sure, especially in the funny parts, that it doesn’t swing from Ethan or Jill’s POV into Shannon’s POV.

    I guess that would be wordsmithing. :)

  6. Jaci
      · February 24th, 2005 at 9:47 am · Link

    I will get pulled out of a story if the author hits me with copious amounts of ‘look at me I can write big words you don’t understand’ sections. But that’s just me, and like Alison said, everyone’s different. Now I do agree that a well crafted paragraph just gives me the WOW factor and I’ll read it over again to discern what it was about that particular narrative or dialogue that stood out and made me want to applaud the writer’s talent.

    On an amusing note, I once worked for a healthcare organization in California, and my job was to create handouts and information bulletins that would be disseminated to injured employees. We were told by the State of California that the language in the handouts could not go beyond the 8th grade reading level. *g*


  7. AngieW
      · February 24th, 2005 at 10:00 am · Link

    I love this post. I think one of the reasons I read certain blogs is because of the stylistic use of words and language that goes on. Some people just have a knack for making others want to read anything they’ve written.

    That said, I also think it can go too far. And since I’ve been proofing for EC, I have seen some examples that have more than pulled me out of the story- sometimes they’ve made me want to throw the story against the nearest wall (unfortunately, with ebooks, that involves trashing my computer…so not the same).

    When there’s a big word that I don’t know, I point it out to the editor and author. I don’t pretend that I’m going to know every word, but I do think that I have a fairly comprehensive vocabulary so if I don’t know it, I’d say chances are good 90% of the readership isn’t going to either. In my mind, if you can get the image across with a less grandiose word, then you need to do that, otherwise you’ll be alienating some of your readers or at the very least pulling them out of the story. And that is not a good thing.

    Of course, on this same subject we could also discuss over-the-top, purple prose. I think that’s how you end up with purple prose and/or bodice rippers. Too much “wordsmithing.” An author who is trying desperately to convey some image, some idea, and…fails miserably because the reader goes “WHAT!!?”

    Pussy fur, anyone?

  8. kate
      · February 24th, 2005 at 1:31 pm · Link

    now that is a cool entry. and a great example. thanks, ms. s.s.

  9. cece
      · February 24th, 2005 at 5:00 pm · Link

    >>But if I’m pulled out of the story because, like Alison said, I want to read it again, that’s a good thing.

    I love this post. I love the quote from woody too but you have to remember that writers read different than readers. There are some authors I can totally just flip the switch adn NOT analyze their writing because I want to enjoy the story I’m reading. Then there’s writers like Marsha Moyer who have me laughing and reading and re-reading to see and try to put my finger on just how she made the impossible work. Both are rare. Most times, I don’t even finish books I pick up these days =(
    Shannon…you need smileys!

  10. Shannon
      · February 25th, 2005 at 12:09 pm · Link

    I need smileys? Does that require code? :p

    I think readers know on a subconcious level (I’ve spelled subconcious 3 different ways and it still looks wrong) when a writer is in love with her own words. And I think a writer -should- love her own words, but not to the point of doing wordsmithing gymnastics to impress herself.

  11. cece
      · February 25th, 2005 at 2:04 pm · Link

    Yes, but it’s actually pretty easy. The hard part is when you can’t leave your smiley’s alone and you find yourself scouring the ‘net for new, unusual or funky smileys…ahem *blush*

  12. Shannon
      · February 25th, 2005 at 4:35 pm · Link

    Well, I’ve spent two hours trying to make the wp-grins plugin work, and I can’t get it. I think the support forum for WP is the best, but I don’t think I should have to spend hours there every time I want to change one little thing. :oops:

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