Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Kay Springsteen....Training our Vocabulary

Stay, That! Roll Over, Smiled!
Training Our Vocabulary
by Kay Springsteen

I used to train terriers for agility performance. I love the discipline a dog demonstrates when running the agility course. One day, I decided to run one of my moms and her six untrained puppies with her. Thus began the fun. The mom knew what to do. Each puppy, however, wanted to explore in a different direction. The lesson for this first time working together was simple. Learn to walk as a group in the direction their leader (AKA me) wanted them to go. An hour later, most of the puppies were ready for a nap but we HAD managed to walk as a group a couple of times around the perimeter of my 2.25 acres.

Words are like puppies; untrained babies with minds of their own, who more often than not move independently through our manuscripts, and yet somehow at the end of the piece, we've managed to guide them into a readable, enjoyable story. But what about that training along the way? Consider our puppies. We have the top of the class, active, expressive, visions of discipline. These puppies go where we want them to go and perform in perfect precision. They look good doing it and they make the rest of the group look good. A true delight to the reading eye. We'll call these Stomp, Snatch, Gape, Grip, and Perch. Then we have the puppies who often don't quite live up to our expectations but sometimes they fit in the right place. We'll name these Walk, Take, Look, Hold, and Sit. Then we have those bad puppies. There are a few in every group. Let's call them Real, That, Turn, Was, and Very. And there is almost always one who feels he is the star of the show. This might be a terrific pup, guaranteed to be a crowd pleaser. We'll refer to this one as Star, but he usually has a different name, like Veer or Pivot However, because this little Star is so great, we tend to let him take center stage and he shows up a lot, taking over the show and preventing some of the other good puppies from showing how magnificent they can be.

As authors, the words we choose and the way we put them together is our voice. The best words, when overused, can become the ugliest words. And when commonly overused words are tossed into the puppy training arena, a great story can become no more than a good one, and a good story can sour into mediocre. It's not enough to know synonyms exist for various words we tend to use too much. We have to learn to think with an expanded vocabulary so it becomes second nature to use it in our writing. We also need to learn to shelve our high-use words every once in a while, even our Stars. I often get caught up writing the story to the point where I just write and stop worrying what words I'm using to get the tale down. If the thoughts are coming too quickly to consider various choices of words, I let it happen then go back later and look for word echoes and the undisciplined use of such words as "that," or "very," as well as words ending in -ly or -ing, and so forth. I have also learned to keep a list of my most overused words and as I notice others, I add them to that list. When I'm finished with my manuscript, the first thing I do in the editing process is search for my most overused words.

If you think of your manuscript as the yard where the puppies are learning, and of you, the author, as the puppy trainer, consider the basic commands for dog training. Sit, stay, roll over, lay down, fetch.

Sit:  Okay to leave in the story.
Stay:  Better if kept out.
Roll over:  Insert a synonym.
Lay down:  Put the word in timeout (a little use is okay).
Fetch: Think of a completely new (or new to you) way to make this statement.

Eliminating overuse of words is a three-step project. My process goes a bit like this:
I.  Make myself aware
            A.  Look for word echoes (especially new ones) during editing process, add words to overused list.
            B.  Watch for other authors' most used words as I conduct market research (read).
2.  Expand vocabulary
            A.  Look for intriguing/new words in books/articles I read.
            B.  Try to think and speak with new/replacement words.
3.  Stop playing favorites.
            A.  Try to think with expanded vocabulary as I type.
            B.  Both on daily edits and on the full manuscript edit, do a word search for my known favorites.

It should be noted that not EVERY instance of your most used words should be eliminated. The trick is to cut down on usage, not eliminate it. If you take the overused words out altogether, you will only find yourself limited into a new favorite word or expression.

Thanks for stopping by Kay and sharing all these amazing ideas for getting our vocab refined and trained. For more info on Kay and her books just check out the links below. 




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