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Thursday, November 15, 2012

On Writing: Choose Your Words Carefully

"Actually if a writer needs a dictionary he should not write. He should have read the dictionary at least three times from beginning to end and then have loaned it to someone who needs it."
-Earnest Hemingway-

   Believe it or not, I get asked frequently where I learned to write like I do. I suppose that could just as easily be taken as an insult, but my ego prefers to consider it in the form of a compliment instead. My answer is that when other kids were in school, I was skipping class and hanging out at the library reading the classics. In a strange way then, I guess you could say that Earnest Hemingway taught me to write. Not that I write like Hemingway. I don't. His run on sentences and painfully detailed descriptions within them are impossible to replicate in the modern era. Copy and paste A Farewell To Arms into a Word document and your computer will probably overheat placing all of the colored lines beneath it. Still, I admire the man and his work and all of his words and I think about them often.
   When I am writing a novel I keep a dictionary and thesaurus right beside the computer. If they aren't, then I have internet tabs with each at the ready and another one prepared to 'google' things I am unsure about. Thinking about this practice reminded me of the Hemingway quote above. It bothered me to think that I had failed as a writer by relying upon something so easily dismissed (as a dictionary) by Hemingway. Maybe I really should spend the next year reading the entire dictionary from cover to cover three times in a row, I thought to myself. Fortunately, I am too lazy to seriously consider such an endeavor. 
   Upon further consideration, Hemingway's remarks can be viewed in a couple of different ways. First, one must take into consideration the fact that Hemingway was known for his pompous bravado. Second, there are few words in any of Hemingway's novels that send one searching for the dictionary. He tended to use very common words to express difficult and uncommon thoughts and feelings. That was actually part of his genius, creating literary fiction without the use of large, overly complicated words.
   Whatever the case, I am not Hemingway and I require multiple references whenever I write due to poor memory, bad habits, and a general lack of education. Too often the simplest word just doesn't feel right and you have to hunt for the perfect fit. Different characters will say things differently and it's important to consider which words each one would choose in their expressions, even when they are expressing the same thing. 
   I almost always use references when I write. Sometimes I even have to find a particular book in my collection and open it to a certain passage just to be certain that what I have written isn't plagiarizing something that I have read somewhere else if it feels too familiar to me. 
   What really gets me into trouble as a self-published author without an editor, is common phrases that I am either too busy writing to check, or I simply don't think about. Here are two examples from my books that people have complained about in reviews:

1. "You've got another thing coming!"
   Apparently, the phrase is supposed to be, 'You've got another think coming,' as in, 'if you think that you can spill milk all over the kitchen and walk away then you have got another think coming.' Who knew? I certainly didn't. It's something that I have never actually read I guess. Probably because I so seldom read newer fiction, I miss out on seeing commonly used phrases in print.   

2. "It donned upon him that he had forgotten his hat."
   Yes, it is supposed to be 'dawned' instead of 'donned.' That is one of those glitches that my brain will not allow me to overcome. If I write that phrase twenty years from now my brain will tell me to write with confidence because it will be 100% certain that it should be 'donned.' I am so certain in fact, that I will never bother to check it or give it a second thought when I write it.   

   I am so haunted by this type of error that I have begun using Google to double check many commonly used phrases because the difference between 'donned' and 'dawned' is the difference between loving your work and hating it for some readers. Some people become very distracted when they encounter misused words like these and they have difficulty reengaging with the story as a result. This bothers me. It eats at me. It is like tomato worms gnawing on my innards when I think of it. I want to run to each of my reader's homes, bust in the front door, steal my books back, and burn them all in a heaping pile in the backyard screaming, "If you believe that I am going to leave those errors in that book then you've got another THINK coming!"
   Seriously though, my past mistakes, typos, and errors do haunt me. I do intend to eventually release professionally edited versions of my past works. Looking ahead however at what I am writing now, I have a few tricks that I am using to try to avoid repeating my mistakes and here they are:

1. Google common phrases and words that have multiple homonyms even if you think you know it already.
2. Reread the last chapter before you begin writing the next one.
3. Have someone read your work aloud to you while you read along. 
4. Save every complaint and cherish the people who email you to tell you about your mistakes. They are not only an excellent future resource for proof reading something; they also are a reminder that you don't want to make those same mistakes again in the future.  

   I know that this mundane lesson in writing might not be what everyone wanted to read on a random Thursday, but I have received emails asking about the craft of writing and how I write. Since it is a brand new blog I can't afford to offend one of my five regular readers (hi mom!), even if the topic doesn't particular interest the other five (hi honey!). Want to see something else? Email me! Until then, choose your words carefully America!

Thanks for Reading,
Buzz Malone   







  1. I have to say, I am one of those people who will get stuck on a misspelled or misused words (like in your last paragraph where you should have used the word "particularly" instead of particular. I know that you will treasure my critique of your blog, otherwise I wouldn't have said anything. :)
    In regards to the above two 'commonly used phrases', the first one, "you've got another thing/think coming"... I have never seen or heard it used with the word 'think'. I suppose that could make sense, especially back in the early part of the 20th century, but I have not ever heard it used that way in today's society. In the second phrase "It donned upon him", I always thought it to include the word "dawned" but in thinking about the meaning of the word "donned" I don't know why it couldn't be either one. Both words have the connotation that something has come up on a person; either the sun has come upon the person or an article of clothing or accessory is upon the person. So as odd as it seems to me, to read that phrase with the word "donned" the meaning is there and could make sense. However, in all fairness to the phrase at hand, I too think it should be "dawned". I trust that you have utilized some of your many resources located conveniently nearby your computer to check these phrases out before you posted your blog about them, but I still question the first one. It just doesn't seem right to say "you've got another think coming". As you will forever think the phrase should be "donned", I will forever think the phrase should be "thing".

    Well Buzz, now you have 6 readers, what ever will you write next? :)

    Jen Monroe

    1. Dear Jen,
      Thank you for finding a typo in my blog about choosing your words carefully and how to avoid typos. Being the first person to discover this hidden gem, you are the lucky winner of a lifetime supply of profanity and exclamation points, courtesy of Buzz Malone Books! Congratulations! :)
      THAT is AFTER I proof read the thing six times because I knew that was going to happen. That is also why I desperately need an editor! In all seriousness, thanks for reading Jen. I appreciate the remarks and the humorous irony of my error. Also, it is THINK and not THING. I know this because after receiving a lengthy correspondence about it, I donated several hours of my life toward researching the phrase to its roots in a hopeless effort to prove that I was right all along. I wasn't.