Language – or, more precisely, words and vocabulary – is a difficult subject for me to talk about without getting into what they call “Linguistic Relativity” (Wikipedia: Linguistic Relativity [External Link]) and its environs. Even if you’re not familiar with language theory (and I’m not, I found out the term by accident when talking to someone cleverer than me) you’ll be familiar with debate about how language usage may or may not shape the way we think about things.
For some reason, the one that springs to mind (possibly because it was touched on in other posts) is the fact that sexuality as such didn’t seem to arise until we had “homosexuality” to describe as something considered “unusual”, then “heterosexuality” as a word to describe “the norm” in contrast to that, then “bisexuality”, and so on. Your mileage may vary, etc, etc.
Anyway, anyone who doubts that words can affect an individual’s thinking or understanding should:
- Learn the basics of a second (or new-to-them) language, and
- Go into an environment where they’re not allowed to speak their first, or fluent, language.
Seriously, about three days in, you’ll almost have forgotten how to think if your second language vocabulary is little more than basic hello and goodbye. You’ll also find yourself wearing that slightly puzzled smile a lot. (And now there are second language English speakers falling off their chairs laughing at me. Sorry, I’m a late developer – and never actually had to speak French under bootcamp conditions, either.)
This post will look at the things I learnt about writing in English from a week of “dim Saesneg” (no English) in April 2012 with SaySomethinginWelsh [External Link]. I will use examples in a few places – from the actual weekend, which will mean the odd welsh word, and there will also be some dialectal examples from around England.
Building With Words
So, time to explain the titles of the post and of this section.
Words are the basic blocks of communication. You need a range of these blocks – a vocabulary – with which to build something that makes sense, and they need to be from an agreed set of blocks – a language, or even a given dialect – in order to appeal to the other people in the community. In building terms, it’s rare to build a modernist house out of concrete in the middle of a 1920s housing estate where everything is brick. It doesn’t mean it can’t happen but it is more difficult. Houses are built in layers, or courses, of bricks with each course building on the last. Conversations are built in sentences with each sentence building on what went before. So far, how do you like my analogy?
At that point, in a true face-to-face conversation, you would express an opinion, correct me, join in or walk away. A verbal conversation is like an ad hoc building. It gets thrown up, the only important thing being that everyone understands what’s going on. You will even mime and pull faces in order to make yourself understood. In the analogy’s terms, it’s more important that we get the roof up than how the building looks over all. As long as the walls are stable, we won’t care if they’re all shapes. Eventually, with enough of these conversations, we become fluent in forming the basic shapes and required responses – and we, too, end up being able to through up the standard housing estate style with as little thought as we accuse most builders of.
As a conversation, form becomes more one-sided or slower and the need to take into account aesthetics comes up. I’m talking about presentations, blog posts, long letters or emails, formal letters or emails, books (both non-fiction and fiction), and so on and so forth. Like in this instance. I don’t expect a response as I’m writing the post – or for you to stop part way down and compose a comment, carry on reading, and then post more. These cues and questions are put in because I want you to think about it, I want the feedback, but we both know it’s not going to affect
Agreeing On A Set Of Blocks
We often forget that language is essentially a social contract. We have, as a group, a basic set of words we have all agreed to mean certain things and we work from there. Because this vocabulary typically covers several thousand words at the very least, we’re out of the habit of checking with the people we communicate with if this is the same set they’re comfortable with. Ignorance and naivety tend to lead people into laughing or responding badly when someone doesn’t have quite the same vocabulary. Consider the jokes about America and the UK being countries divided by a common language, and people getting sniffy about “Americanisms”, neologisms, or provincial dialects.
One I’ve grown up with is the use of is “owt” and “nowt”. Media and “Southerners” tend to consider this a Yorkshire-ism. They miss or forget that these are “ought” and “nought”, which have fallen out of normal usage as old fashioned. Or perhaps some of them are using the old fashioned perception to push the Northerner-as-less-civilised cliché. These words are still used all over the North of England, and parts of the Midlands but not all in exactly the same sounds. “Owt” and “nowt” are spellings created to capture vowel shift in a localised accents. The area I grew up in has a slightly different vowel shift so the words sound more like “ote” and “note”.
I don’t think I’ve ever actually written “owt” and “nowt” down in a formal communication before – although I have texted them because they are much shorter than the alternative “anything” and “nothing”. I also rarely use them outside of conversation with people I expect to accept them, either as “fellow Northerners” or as someone who doesn’t mind if I get a bit broader in my accent and dialect. Hey, look! I’m bilingual, after all!
So, intended audience informs the choice of vocabulary by restricting use of dialectal words, or words that cover specialisations. For example, I would simply write “oak tree” in most situations and not “Quercus” (the genus) for an equally generalised term, or “sessile oak” (a.k.a. Welsh oak, Cornish oak, Durmast oak, Quercus petraea) or “penduculate oak” (a.k.a. English oak, French oak, Quercus robur). I wouldn’t expect a typical reader to want that level of detail or necessarily understand it, and not because I think people are stupid but because I don’t expect everyone to have the same interests and specialisations that I have.
And even if someone has the same specialisation or has encountered the same subject, they don’t necessarily have the same vocabulary to describe it. The more widely read, or the deeper the education, the more likely someone is to have a vocabulary that includes the word you’re looking for.
To use an example from Welsh bootcamp, we were let loose on Aberteifi (Cardigan) with three words and instructions to ask strangers – in Welsh – what they meant. One of those words was “gwladoli”. I don’t think any of the pairs sent out actually got the correct answer, and that was simply because wasn’t in the vocabulary of anyone we asked. People made guesses – “gwlad” means “country” or “nation”, so people worked out from there – but no-one got close to “nationalisation”. It just wasn’t something they were talking about in Welsh so they didn’t have that word in their vocabulary. I didn’t try the same conversation in English but I’m certain that if I stopped people in the street and asked them what “nationalisation” was, I’d get some good, if sweary, answers.
There is, of course, an argument for keeping any word that might not be recognised out of reach. This avoids leaving what is effectively an unsightly hole in the sentence that might bring the whole building crashing down about the reader’s ears. This certainly sits with the “Keep It Simple Stupid” attitude instilled by report writing. A writer need to be pretty sure that the audience is going to understand a complex word before they use it – but that isn’t the same as avoiding them altogether.
These Building Blocks Give Synaesthesia
The problem with describing words as building blocks is that they don’t all have the same shape, weight, colour, texture, sound, rhythm, feeling, whatever sensory word you want to come up with. Few written works are intended to be one of many on a huge estate, not standing out from their neighbours at all. (With, perhaps, the exception of electronics instruction manuals. Just saying.) The same goes for presentations.
We all want our work to be memorable and stand out – in a good way. We want it to fit within its genre (fantasy, romance, science papers, business review) but we want it to show off the best of our abilities. This is something controlled by the shape of our building (word count + genre + message) but the choice of words adds to this because words each come with their own values. Every word has a meaning and a set of assumptions. In the main, we expect and find that people who are in the same language community (be that nation, industry, or genre) make the same assumptions, but this doesn’t mean that any word always fits.
For example, consider walking. We all walk. I take the dog for a walk on a regular basis. But what I call walking in that context isn’t a gentle stroll around a park and I tend to look down on people who only amble around on asphalt. It’s more like a cross-country hike, except that we only go out for an hour. I also do lots of walking with work and, given the uneven terrain of open and closed landfills, that could also be considered hiking. I’m not sure I ever want to go so far as a trek, as anything more than a couple of hours is beyond my attention span.
Does saying “I walk” really cover what I wanted to say? Well, it depends on the audience and the idea(s) I’m trying to get across to them. The thing about “to walk” is it’s a nice, basic word. If I’m having a simple conversation – as I would if exercising my Welsh (“‘Dw i’n cerdded”) – it’s fine. If I’m having a long involved discussion, or want to disassociate myself from the gentler stuff, I need a more specialised word. And each of those bits up there implied something totally different to me (which may not be what it meant to you):
- “We all walk” – it’s not a big deal, it’s something we all know how to do. Although I’ve just gone and dismissed anyone who can’t. (Sorry.)
- “I take the dog for a walk” – shifts the emphasis so that it’s an activity done at certain times instead something I do all the time. Tone would probably also imply a sense of duty.
- “stroll” – implies slow, steady, with a big smile on my face while I take it all in. I have a suspicion that strolling in the rain wouldn’t really work.
- “amble” – implies slow and possibly unsteady in the sense of unnecessarily large side to side movement for little forward motion. In this instance, I was being dismissive. (Sorry.)
- “hike” – implies walking with a certain level of determination. There may be some minor obstacles.
- “trek” – a borrowed word (Afrikaans, I think) that means covering long distances over many days. Obstacles are a necessity and probably difficult.
And this is without getting into the old-fashioned “take a turn” and any other words or phrases we could come up with.
So, if we have a determined hero who must reach a given destination, does he “walk”? Or do we come up with another term (“march”? “advance”?) that has a better texture, colour, sound, whatever? (This is a trick question. Everyone knows that true heroes, being well-off / members of the nobility / so gosh-darn kick-ass, ride everywhere.)
And, again, the larger the vocabulary, the more likely that the writer can find just the right word to describe what their characters are doing and how they feel about it. Or, that’s what we all want to believe.
Finishing The First Draft versus Final Finish
Written works take several, or even many, drafts. I like to think in threes but the truth is most of my accepted works have been through several tweaks and iterations before being accepted. It’s just that if something makes it to three drafts, I know it’s likely to make it through the whole process. There are many ways to approach the initial draft (and writing in general), but what I’ve heard and read from other people along with my own experience leads me to believe that most methods fall somewhere between two extremes:
- Focus on writing content, regardless
- Focus on writing the idea, regardless
The first is a good habit to get into in that it keeps the writer thinking in the necessary channels but can often end up aimless – so, if you think you need to do achieve a certain word count in a week and tweets count, you could end up using up your available writing time telling people what you had for breakfast (say). The second is useful for planning out where you want to go but can end up being very bare bones, just writing down more background information or a list of plot points. The worst case scenario of either extreme is that your day’s work is unpresentable or doesn’t fit with the whole work, the building, and needs to be torn down or abandoned.
Let’s look at writing the idea first. Basically, we’re talking plot and it can end up closer to report writing if it says only what has or needs to happen. At the most simple it can be “The cat sat on the mat” level sentences. (A common flaw I’ve had when I forced work is to get into junior-school level reporting: “I did this, and then I did this, and then I did this…”.) This is not bad as such, reporting has it’s uses, but it is simply a framework when it comes to fiction. In building terms, we’re looking at a structure using very basic, regular blocks. With the right tweaks, this is possibly fine for child readers – but it’s a fallacy to say children’s books are simple as there is plenty of complex stuff out there, just look at The Gruffalo. For an adult audience, a skilled writer could use this style to come up with something equivalent to brutalist / minimalist architecture but the rest of us don’t get encouraged to do that kind of work. I for one can’t make it look good at all.
The good points:
- It shows the building shape from the beginning. (Which, I guess, is why television and similar work is generally pitched as an outline of an idea first.)
- It should (given the simplicity of the building blocks) be quick work.
The down side:
- This is a framework that will probably need a significant amount of work in the next draft, with word swapping and extending sentences to allow for more complex details.
- Test readers and editors may dismiss the work as it doesn’t show the writer’s ability.
Basically, this is not a bad thing but it is one of several parts to writing a story. Simply writing out the idea gives you a synopsis, a plan to work to and an outline with which to approach other people for advice. It’s preparation. By focussing on this, a writer ends up with a detailed explanation of what happens to who, or what, and when, but not necessarily something that’s entertaining.
Some people need to write a detailed synopsis before they will consider writing an idea out. I started this post with bullet points of where I wanted to go. See? Everyone needs to start of with some degree of planning and outline, if only that there’s a firm idea of who is going to do something, or where something is going to happen, or what is going to happen before the piece is written. However, taking this to the extreme is building the house without thought for how it’s going to look.
To go back to the focus on writing content, regardless, it’s easy to see how this would be the opposite: to put together the building materials in the most pleasing pattern without considering the overall shape. As words are not regular shapes, it’s possible to end up with plenty of interesting mosaics: vignettes, small scenes, characters that run away with the reader’s heart. It also, as I said earlier, gets a writer in the habit of thinking about these things, of considering word usage and putting these things together without having to think about them as hard as they did the first time they tried.
The good points:
- The complex detail and word count is in place. It’s unlikely that many words will need to be swapped or reconsidered.
- The writer’s ability to engage the reader’s emotion shows.
The down side:
- There’s little or no plot, and test readers and editors are likely to point out there’s no framework to hold the beautiful writing together.
- The first draft is time-consuming. And the second will, too, because the scenes will need stitching together into a plot.
Which is where the finding a happy medium comes in, of organising the story arc and plot structure versus letting details run away with the – and so far every project I’ve done has been slightly different. (I say, with only a handful of publishing credits and no rehomed long works. It’s not like I actually know, I’m just thinking in text, here.)
But the main point is not about a writing method but more about what speaking no English (with some key exceptions) for a week did to my thinking about the method or process. I hadn’t realised before that being forced to adopt very basic vocabulary that it would affect my thinking. I was allowed to use English to write – and used it to put together the bullet points for this post – but if anyone else were to actually read the notes through they’d wonder why I was suddenly writing like a primary school student.
Yes, my English vocabulary also reduced, to slightly above my Welsh, probably as a result of having to plot out what I wanted to say in the Welsh vocabulary I had available. While some words and phrases of Welsh trotted out automatically (all kudos goes to the teachers) and therefore took up residence in my head, everything else was put together in simple little blocks that I could have translated with an extra second or so. My notes are very simple and very badly spelled (at least the Welsh is).
All of which led me to a finer appreciation of the ability to choose the right word – and the fact that I can choose what I consider the right word with very little thought – in my native language, when not trying to communicate in another. I’m also left with the guilty feeling that I should learn some more complicated words to make up for whatever I might have lost in language-related shock.
Applying For Planning Permission
Because language is about communication and sharing ideas between people, it’s not a good idea to write in isolation. If only because a writer needs to be sure that these really are the right words to get across that idea.
Most published writers tell aspiring (i.e. unpublished) writers to go out and read as much as they can get their grubby paws on. However, in the lower levels of popularity, this on its own ends up a pretty one sided conversation: the published material informs the writer, who builds something new that intends to inform someone else. Obviously, having become a published work kind of restricts any adaption in an existing text to take account of someone else’s opinion but there are plenty of stages at which to engage in discourse.
If you’re about to ask why I’d want to engage in discourse then the answer is simply this: how else am I supposed to know if my text works? Consider the analogy of building blocks again.
The larger the project – a 98 bedroom mansion, say – the better it is to sidle up to your local planning department and ask, in as casual a manner as possible, “So, if I were to ask to build this on this piece of land…?” If the answer is “no”, then there’s no point wasting time, effort and expense pursuing that project. At the very beginning, it’s the concept that is most important.
Unpublished / unknown / aspiring writers don’t necessarily have an in with a publisher to do the equivalent but we can ask a few people whether they find a particular idea interesting enough to read a book about it. (“Pigs in space? Whaddaya think?”) Of course, I never asked with my first attempt at a long work, or my second, or my third. I think I just needed to get those words out of my head and get the practice in. I’m still pretty certain that one of those is salvageable in the long run – when my abilities are up to the content. These days, I generally bounce the idea off at least one other person, maybe two or three before I start on anything expected to be longer than “a short story”.
Doing this results in one of three things:
- The idea is discarded as unworkable.
- The idea is filed as a “maybe” to be looked at another time.
- The idea is acceptable and work starts.
(If I’m feeling enthusiastic about something, however, it often gets bumped to result 3. I never said I was well behaved.)
The next stage of communication is the alpha reading, when the writer passes a whatever level draft to the first reader(s). This is probably the equivalent of an architect taking sketches to the client – possibly only to get told “That isn’t what I had in mind.” But this is not necessarily a bad response because the writer still needs to know if the idea works, and what can make it work: balancing out the focus between the structure and the appearance, when it turns out the 97th bedroom is hanging in space with no support or the third bedroom has no ceiling, and when the wrong block is in the wrong place.
From what I’ve seen, there’s a lot of variety in how people handle their alpha reading. Some people don’t like handing works out until their on to a third or fourth draft, some people need to know how it’s working out as they go along (I’m in this camp). Some people just want a “yes” or “no” response, some people want grammar corrections, and some people just want to know if there’s any plot points or opportunities gone missing (me, again). All anyone really seems to be after is a fresh pair of eyes that looks at the text and says “that could work” (or not).
It’s the beta reading level where communication gets more chaotic because it needs to involve more people. I’m not sure how that would fit in with an architect’s life except, perhaps, if they have to then take their basic designs and check with materials suppliers that things are possible. Anyway, in writing, this is the stage when the text goes out to as many people as the writer is comfortable with – and probably should go out to at least ten times as many if they want to be sure of getting things right. Because we’re actually asking: Does this make sense? Have I used the right words? Do you understand what I mean?
This is where I usually find out that, as the character Inigo Montoya from The Princess Bride has it, “You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.” This is where I find out that pretty arrangement of blocks I thought I’d made is just a glare of psychedelic colour to someone else. Or it’s actually grey-scale. Or it’s ruined by the mismatch of texture. The beta reading stage is a rinse and repeat thing, of course – although I’ve never made it up to the omega reading (thankfully). But no matter how many times I fix, restructure, swap blocks and generally try to make the building presentable, someone will always come up with a correction – because nobody’s perfect and we all like things arranged differently.
Things narrow back down to one-to-one communication if the text is lucky enough to make it in front of an editor (or the building planning submission makes it in front of the local authority). However, this doesn’t mean there won’t be more changes. I can only imagine that a long work is going to end up with lots of revisions before the finished text is published (or the 98 bedroom mansion is built). My short story acceptances have had a few questions about particular phrasing or words. In some cases it really does work better in another way that I didn’t think of, and in some cases it’s down to a building block not being recognised by the editor. Most of those, I accept the swap-over with a mental shrug and expand my vocabulary – and some of them I just point out that the word really does exist.