August 17, 2012

Lawyers make good writers because we’ve learned to be careful with words.

To us, words have both a precise and a nuanced meaning, not just a Black’s definition, but also an entire history of consequences and implications, as recorded in volumes of precedent. Words are powerful. Words are the tools of the legal trade, and of course, the writer’s.

But the writer gets to play with words, choosing from a wider vocabulary, forging surprising combinations and even inventing new ones.

The words we choose for our fiction define our style and our authorial voice, and are chosen for our audience. We choose legal words for a legal audience and lay words for a lay audience, but you can’t choose literary words for a literary audience without sounding a tad faux. Choosing the right word is the essence of the writing process.

Too many beginning writers try too hard to sound literary — lofty and lyrical when the ordinary will do.

They end up sounding at best trite (“She glided across the room.”) and at worst false (“She’s 250 pounds and unable, even on a good day, to glide.”) (A writer who makes such false statements is unreliable — why should the reader believe in the reality of the scene?

Of course, there are times when “quotidian” is exactly the right word to put in a character’s or a specific narrator’s voice, but it takes a very special character or narrator to pull that off. And even if you find a place for it, ordinarily you can’t use a word like quotidian more than once in any given work. It draws too much attention to itself.

So, choosing the right word (we know it’s never “glide”) is important not just to establish your personality as a writer but also your authority as an author. Accurate descriptions are necessary, but only interesting ones get published. Interesting ones are those which engage us emotionally. We have a different emotional reaction to the word “ordinary” depending on whether it is meant as a compliment or as an accusation. We get that from context, but we can also get it from the synonym for “ordinary” that the writer chooses.

Finding the right word or synonym is an exercise first of imagination, imagining your character so completely that you know his or her words, or seeing your setting so clearly you can describe it with a lawyer’s precision and a writer’s sensibility. Above all, choosing the right word is a writer’s work, euphemistically called “craft.”

I rarely needed Roget’s Thesaurus when writing a contract, opinion letter or legal brief, but it is my steady companion in the writing and editing process. Of course, word processing programs offer a “thesaurus” feature, but most only offer common synonyms, good for a beginning, but neither as much fun nor as stimulating to the imagination as the real thing. I recommend “The Original Roget’s: Roget’s International Thesaurus” as published by Harper Perennial, with at least 325,000 words in 1,073 categories.

It does not, interestingly, list “quotidian” (daily, everyday, ordinary) in the index, but it does offer 11 slightly different meanings for “ordinary,” each of which leads to a number of adjectives that could convey the precise meaning you have in mind:

  • Medium — intermediate, average, mean, mid-level, banal;
  • Inferior — subordinate, beneath, minor, lowly, lesser, humble, vulgar;
  • Customary — traditional, normative, standard, widespread, comformist;
  • Common — plebeian, homely, popular, bourgeois, kitschy;
  • Simple — plain, nondescript, matter-of-fact;
  • Populational — mass, public;
  • Prosaic — unpoetical, unembellished, unromantic, unimaginative;
  • Frequent — recurrent, oft-repeated, habitual;
  • Prevalent — reigning, ruling, predominantly;
  • Average — normal, unremarkable, unspectacular, “no rocket scientist.”

The writer’s work, and play, is in deciding which word is right — banal, humble, comformist, plain, normal, etc. — in the context of his/her thriller, romance, sci-fi, memoir or mainstream novel. It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to imagine how much more entertaining the law (and writing) might be if we hold ourselves to such a common duty of kitschy care.


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