Just Because It’s In The Dictionary, That Doesn’t Mean It’s Right
Back in the days when I did a little critiquing, I heard this all of the time. “Well, it’s in Webster, so it’s a real word.” And yes, I get the same crap from the kids when we play Scrabble.
For example, a couple of words that are in the dictionary are “F-Bomb” and “App”. These are just fine inside dialog (see Rule Number Nineteen as well), but in narrative, they are just plain wrong.
Why? Let me ‘splain somethin’ to you, Lucy…
A character saying something like, “…when my app went south, I almost dropped an F-bomb in the middle of the elevator…” kind of works. Maybe. Odds are, a real person would say, “…when the fucking phone broke I said, ‘what the fuck is this shit?'” On the other hand, in narrative, you would probably say something like, ‘…when his phone’s GPS failed, Joe blasphemed the gods in charge of high technology…’
Please be careful…there are a number of good reasons to avoid slang and other things that make their way into the dictionary these days and very few for using them.
One of the best reasons to avoid the slang in particular is how a book ages. If the narrative is full of hip slang, odds are in just a few years no one will understand the meanings. By way of example, look at the history of the word “geek”. Used in narrative, are you talking about someone who: (1) Bites the heads off of live animals; (2) Thinks Star Trek is real; (3) Works with computers; or (4) Is into video games and anime?
Like so many other things, the standards for what qualifies as a word have fallen.
Between The Quotes, Grammar Doesn’t Count
I’m a Grammar Nazi. I admit that freely and fully. Bad grammar—and other associated issues like slang, syntax errors, and all the rest—drive me absolutely bonkers.
Ask my kids.
But the simple fact of the matter is that between the quotes—that is to say, in dialog—grammar doesn’t count.
If, for example, your hero is a good-old-boy from the swamps of Alabama, I can assure you he will say something like, “…I ain’t got no good learnin’…” now and then. If he doesn’t, he sucks as a character. And it doesn’t matter if he went to Yale at some time.
Your characters should speak just as a real person with the same background, education, and all the rest would speak in a similar situation.
These are things that all decent writers already know. If you haven’t actually learned this someplace, you just plain know it instinctively. Folks, this ain’t rocket science.
Yeah, I can say that…I grew up in the hillbilly Ozarks and have a degrees in physics and mechanical engineering. I know what rocket science actually is.
The bad news is there are more than a few editors out there who clearly don’t know this. They will red-pen you for using “ain’t” in dialog. They will nail you for dangling participles and other grammatically esoteric rules. And some will still try to enforce the dreaded split infinitive.
So, how do you handle such editors? There are two basic ways…
Method One: Change your story to fit their whims. This is a VERY bad practice. Your character speaks in a certain way for a particular reason. I can assure you that if you make these changes, you will cripple—if not kill—your story and its believability. I strongly encourage you to forgo this solution in favor of Method Two.
Method Two: Correct the editor. There are three phases here…first, point out to the editor that the problem lines (for them) are within dialog and are central to the character’s development. If that fails, tell the editor that this is the way it will be and the discussion is now closed. If this fails, fire the editor or tell the publisher you want an editor who actually understands how this whole process works.
See also Rule Number Eight.
Never—EVER—forget that YOU are the writer. The creative process is totally YOURS. YOU develop the characters and how the reader sees them. Absolutely NONE of the creative process is in the field of the editor.
As Rule Eight states, do not fear the editor. The absolute worst thing that can happen is that you will need to sell your story to another publisher, probably for more money.
Never Listen To English Majors…Most Aren’t Published
The short version of this is that an English major knows a lot about the English language, like how to build a proper sentence, but by and large, they don’t know jack-shit about how to write a book people want to pay for and read.
Now, on to the long version…
Oh, and before you English majors come after me with torches and pitchforks, remember that these are all general statements. Like anything, there are always exceptions. Not many, but a few.
And I have a MA in English. It didn’t take very well and I got over it.
There is a ton of research out there about average reading levels, and the numbers vary all over the place depending on your focused target market. Want to know the average reading level for general entertainment adult reading in the US?
Yes, that’s right. The average person reading your books is reading at a fifth grade level. For some genres (romance, horror, terror, etc.) the number is a little lower. For others (SF, spy, docudrama, etc.) it’s a tad higher.
In other words, aim your story at about what a fifth grader should be able to read, and your readers won’t get lost. Oh, by the way…the average US fifth grader reads at a 4.1 level. Go figure.
And just a fast caveat here…on all word processing systems I have ever seen, the readability scores end up being WAY low. The algorithms used to do the calculations include dialog. By its nature, dialog has very low readability scores because the paragraphs and sentences tend to be very short compared to narrative.
All of this boils down to the simple fact that to sell books you need to write clearly, concisely, and with passion. All of the fancy things that English majors know how to do will accomplish exactly two things:
(1) Confuse the living hell out of your average reader, and
(2) Make your books sit on the store shelf until the end of time.
There is one school of thought among writers that if you write over the head of the “average” reader, you will sell books to the “above average” readers. These readers will tend to be better educated and have more disposable income to spend on books, so you’ll make more money. The problem is that these latter-day-yuppies don’t buy books. They buy sports cars, dirt bikes, RVs, SUVs, boats, a new smart phone every six weeks, houses that they are seriously upside-down on before they sign the mortgage, and no small amount of various recreational drugs, both prescription and—shall we say—over the counter. In short, they have no disposable income and no time to read.
And remember that the typical millennial is still living at home with their parents and has no free cash at all. And I won’t go into the simple fact that a goldfish has a longer attention span (8-9 seconds) than the average millennial (3-4 seconds).
On the other hand, the average readers out there manage their money, keep things real, and spend money judiciously on entertainment products, books especially.
The real writers figure this out pretty fast and abandon the screwball idea in a hurry. I do, however, know one author who is still sticking to this pattern. He is an amazing writer with all the skills needed to make it to the big time. He’s 31 now, has a law degree (he’s failed the bar in five different states now), has about six books published (all self-pubbed), works about 20 hours a week at Wendy’s, lives in his parent’s garage, and makes about $1,000 a year writing. Since he has no expenses (he doesn’t have a car and pays no rent or board), his fast food and writing gigs keep him in beer and weed. Now that’s the life!
Besides, the purpose of language is to communicate. If you can get your point across in an efficient and concise manner, then who really cares if you violate a few rules along the way? And then there is the issue of the rules of language…
See also Rule Number Six. In that Rule, I detail how the style manuals are usually wrong. More importantly, I point out that the style manuals are based on what we authors are doing. In other words, we authors set the rules for language, not the English majors.
Go ahead…pick up any style manual or dictionary. On every page you will find a reference to what some author did in the past used to defend what the manual or dictionary is saying is the right thing to do. In most cases, you will find several such examples on every page.
You won’t find a single entry that points to the opinion of Jane Doe, PhD as defense for a rule.
Let’s make sure we all understand the food chain here…
English majors edit books and help authors stay on track and not make stupid mistakes in grammar and punctuation that alter the meaning of a sentence. (Like “Let’s eat grandma” versus “Let’s eat, grandma.”) Authors can, do, and should tell the English major to get stuffed and this is the way we are going to do this book. That is to say, the author is the final authority.
The people who write style manuals and dictionaries take their input from authors. In all cases of disagreement, the author is always right.
In other words, the style manual and dictionary govern the English major, the author governs the style manual and dictionary, and so the author also governs the English major.
To paraphrase Mel Brooks, “It’s good to be the queen!”