Thursday, November 17, 2011

Argotal Acumen

The other day I was celebrating a fabulous word sprint with some other NaNoWriMo die-hards, and one Tweeter asked what I was being so smug about. I told him: "I am celebrating our literary prowess and argotal acumen." He thought that was funny. I'm glad - because usually when I pull that retort out of my hat, most people look at me like I have Brussel sprouts growing out of my nose, or something.

The "argotal acumen" snark is something of an inside joke between me and my dad. He's the one that came up with it - I can't take credit for it. But it's our little catchphrase for any smart use of higher vocabulary that we somehow, amazingly, manage to pull off in a quasi-normal sentence.

You know - something you drop into conversation just to see if your audience is still paying attention.

I do this all the time with my students. I'm always dropping odd words into my history lecture, very specific words with extremely specific meanings, just to see if they are paying attention. After fifteen years of teaching school, I can pretty well gauge by their expressions if they caught it or not. Whether they're confused by it, or are actively sifting out the context clues and filing it away for later use - I can pretty much tell they heard it (and how they're responding to it) by the look in their eyes. Sometimes they ask me to define words, but I rarely do - and never flat out; I just give them more examples. Sooner or later they piece things together...usually sooner.

This is a good thing to keep in mind as you write - or rather, as you edit. With every novel there comes a need, in some form or fashion, for a kind of specialized vocabulary that your average reader may or may not know. The trick is to:

     * Drizzle in specific information gradually. In his book On Writing, Sir Thomas Arthur Quiller-Couch said that readers are like large, narrow-necked bottles - capable of holding a tremendous amount, if you have the patience to drizzle in the information a little at a time. Be sure you don't strangle your readers with vocabulary overload.

     * Be certain that your vocabulary is appropriate for the work. Don't make it sound like an owner's manual, and don't go so prosey that you lose the narrative amidst your quest for sensual or textural details. There is a place for both, but either can be horrendously overdone.

     * Sometimes it's the combination of words, not the specificity, that works best. Maybe you could get very technical about the mechanisms in the uber-villain's laboratory; but for a wider audience consider using your specific knowledge to masterfully manipulate more ordinary words in unusual combinations.

     * Make sure that your super-cool vocabulary actually furthers the story. Do we really need to know about the uber-villain's machine? If it is central to the plot, then - by all means, give us the details. If it's just a background example of the kind of wickedness we can expect from the villain, then generalize more. Just don't lose sight of your overall goal.

Again --- for those of you hip-deep in your NaNoWriMo efforts just now, this is something that will be attended to after November draws to a close. Vocabulary tweaks are best managed in the editing stage, anyway. But it's still worth noting at the composition stage, because it is when you're doing a long, hard brain dump that you set the tone for things that come afterward - not only in your plot, but in how and what you should edit.

Of course the rough draft will be rough - as ugly as a warthog's backside. They always are. But thinking through such semantic rules beforehand, even in the midst of the wordmongering battle, will save you a lot of trouble in the long run.

Am I the only one who continually wrestles with this aspect of writing? What about you?


  1. I love how one word, even a very simple word, can add layers and layers of subtle texture and meaning to one's writing. I'm sure it's true of other genres, too, but especially with my historical fiction--well, historical fantasy--word choice is so, so important. One word used anachronistically can change the feel of an entire passage, as can one etymologically and historically appropriate word (that's hopefully still familiar to modern readers).

  2. Awesome post! Things to think about as we edit, edit, edit! I think it's so important to remember to look at our writing from a reader's point of view.

  3. Thanks, Lillie!! And yes, I'm constantly looking for ways to read my own work from outside my own's the only way I can effectively communicate what I need to say.

    Amanda - oh yes, that one critical word can turn the course of a whole paragraph, a whole is a fabulous and frightening thing...sometimes both at once. :)