Sunday, June 17, 2012

V is for Vocabulary

...but the question is, do you have a decent one?
Are you sure?

Most writers I've known have had pretty darn impressive vocabularies. In fact, many of us who write genre fiction have--more than once in the past--been asked to "dumb down" our verbiage. We've been told that the average genre book should be written to a sixth-grade reading level--which is still an interesting dilemma, considering that most of us weren't using any words that we didn't already know when we were in sixth grade. Nevertheless, we were told that "long" words would "put off" our readers; they wouldn't want to read with our novel in one hand and a dictionary in the other.

Unfortunately, we're reaping the results of that dumbing down now--in an unexpected place.
Our book editors.

Yes, we're told over and over again now that book editors don't "edit" much anymore. They're too busy doing non-editorial but book production-related tasks, having meetings with Marketing, etc., to go over books with a fine-toothed comb. So the books have to come in as darn near perfect as we can make them.

Which is a problem if we're also products of reading books that never made us reach beyond an arbitrarily-decided "sixth-grade reading level." Some of us were never forced to actually learn a vocabulary that goes into a high-school reading level, much less a college-educated one. That becomes a problem when we decide to write something ourselves.

But that becomes a class-A felony when we sit down to edit someone else's work. Because how can we edit a book properly, bring it up to snuff, correct its errors...if we don't know errors when we SEE them?

Books will always have errors, here and there. A few inevitably sneak through because of sheer time constraints. Even with several pairs of eyes looking at a proof, the mind will do a certain amount of compensation for what's not on the page--we've got all kinds of nifty little viral stuff circulating around online demonstrating just that.  So in a time crunch, editors will read something over as quickly as they can. That's almost always a mistake, and it almost always lets mistakes get through.  It happens.

Those mistakes, we can live with. But those aren't the kinds of mistakes I'm talking about--one or two in a full-length book.
I'm talking about finding seven or eight missteps in the first ten pages of something.

These are errors that can only be made by ignorant people--not in the punitive sense, but in the literal sense. Ignorant of grammar, ignorant of proper punctuation, ignorant of cultural references...but most embarrassingly, ignorant of words themselves. They just plain "don't know what they don't know"--and the results are just plain awful.

In other words, some of the worse errors I'm seeing of late are overwhelmingly in the "word usage" category of error. As in, the editor doesn't have enough of a vocabulary to know that the author just slipped up and put the wrong word in. Or worse yet...the author's proof started out right, and the editor's changed it to something wrong.

This kind of thing comes from editors who don't even have enough vocabulary and/or language training to know "lightning" from "lightening."
Or that it's "death throes," not "death throws."
Or that there's a difference between "subtly" and "subtlety."

There are more, of course.  Cultural references that go bad--things like spelling the name "Hannibal Lector" or the always-popular misuse of the term "Immaculate Conception."
Or grammar things that are wrong--like, for instance, that you don't put a comma after words like "maybe" or "but" except in very specific circumstances.

The list goes on. And on. And on. Every single one of these things is cringeworthy.
The good news is, every single one of them would be fixable...
But the bad news is, apparently the editors don't know that they need fixing. So they don't get fixed.
And our books look really, embarrassingly illiterate.

But even worse, for the sake of readers and writers alike--is that in the end, the ultimate damage done by these missteps isn't an offense to "grammar gurus" but a disruption in the story itself. Miscommunication--saying "dependant" when you mean "dependent," "tenant" when you mean "tenet," or "death throws" when you mean "death throes"--stops the reader from getting what the writer truly intended in the text. 
It stops the reader from truly getting the story in its best form.

In order to reverse this trend, there are some other trends we'll have to reverse. Like the dominant trend of insisting that our writing stay dumb and dumber.

We need to start teaching vocabulary again. And the grammar it comes in on. Because when we do want to fly with a word, we ought to at least be able to use the right one.

That's not a matter of snobbism or pedantics  (or even semantics!), or perfectionism.
Our stories demand it.
Our writers deserve it.
And our editors simply must have it.
Otherwise, we've got a whole raft of people out there trying to jerry-rig the sculpting of raw manuscript into finished book...using the heel of a shoe and a sharp knife, when they really need a hammer and chisel.

Any workman knows you can't do the job right without the right tools.
Many, many, MANY of our editors apparently don't have those tools.
If they don't, the writers they support will never have them, either.
And the stories are the losers in that process.

Let's change it.


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