Monday Miscellany - July 19, 2021
by Baltimore Review Staff Members
In praise of boring books:
Dictionaries, thesauruses, grammar and punctuation guides, books on usage, style guides, craft books for particular genres, all those lonely books in the reference section of the libraries and bookstores. Maybe they’re boring to you. They’re not to me. Or other writers who are deeply into the art and craft—and transitive verbs, Oxford commas, dialogue mechanics, dangling modifiers, misplaced modifiers, verb forms, rhetorical devices, and whatnot—of our fabulously complicated and ever-changing language. I love that stuff.
I’ll never completely understand our language, but I’ll never stop trying. I’ve got a firm grip on how to use “lie” and “lay” and “who” and “whom,” but I still have to look up correct uses of “peek/peak” and “breech/breach.” Even “desert” and “dessert” (which is embarrassing). I can stare at a page for minutes trying to decide whether or not to use a comma, and then another few minutes checking online guides. I Google definitions almost daily. If it weren’t for deadlines, I’d delete words and insert new ones for years. Either I’ve gotten fussier about writing as I’ve gotten older or fuzzier in remembering the rules.
We have an incredible number of online resources at our disposal, and we should use them if we’re not absolutely sure that a word is being used correctly or whether a title should be italicized or in quotation marks. You can find cool online tools like title case converters, and there are editing tools in Word. (The latter is sometimes helpful but often not.) And I believe that reading widely and extensively, reading the work of excellent writers and the kind of work you want to write, can get you started on mastering the basics. You may not know a particular rule or the multisyllabic term for that clump of words on the page, but you’ll sense when something is out of whack, and you’ll feel pleasure when you hear a certain kind of music in a sentence.
So. Offline. Reading the above-mentioned reference books, physical copies, can be both a pleasurable and serious undertaking. A commitment to your craft. A sign of your seriousness. Surrounding yourself with bookshelves of great writing and reference books side-by-side, staring down at you while you try to write a story, is a reminder to set the bar high. And armchairs and sofas are often more comfortable than “ergonomic” desk chairs. The sound of paper pages turning is satisfying to the soul, and you don’t have to keep hitting the back button because you lost the flow or forgot something. More importantly, reference books build on the foundation you’ve been getting by reading the best—and hopefully well-edited—books you can get your hands on.
I don’t think any of us can spend a good chunk of time reading a dictionary, but a page or two can be wonderful, especially dictionaries that provide origins of the words and give usage examples. It’s great to discover new words, find perfectly good words you haven’t heard in ages, and be so inspired by a word that you want to plunk it in a poem or story. Familiarity with reference books like grammar, punctuation, and usage guides can keep you from making embarrassing blunders. And books on the art and craft (and many of the esoteric finer points) of creative writing can provide you with the tools you need to express yourself in an engaging way. They can also help you appreciate and enjoy the work of other writers.
Briefly, back online: If your shelves are already sagging under the weight of books, yes, there are online options (but there goes the lovely sound of rustling paper). You can borrow books online through the library or, if you subscribe to an online book app (in my case, Scribd, mostly for audiobooks for long walks), you can open books and read a chapter or two at a time. For example, I’ve been clicking through Self-Editing for Fiction Writers by Renni Browne and Dave King. I borrowed a paper copy from my local library a while back and found it useful. Gradually, it all sinks in and becomes second nature. You won't need to think about it. OK, you will, but not as much.
If you speak English, which I have to assume you do in some capacity, you already know that English is a constantly growing and changing medium of communication, as evident by the hundreds of words that are added to our lexicon and immortalized in writing each year. There are a LOT of ways that English picks up new words, which is part of what makes it a bit quirky (or makes it a royal pain), be it from absorbing words from other languages, integrating slang, or any other number of weird and fun little happenstances. Today, I want to highlight some of my favorites.
Often, a word’s written form can be influenced by the sounds that verbalize it. Imagine how an author could denote a character’s accent in dialogue, perhaps by dropping letters or switching vowels to emphasize how the character pronounces things. Unsurprisingly, writers have been writing what they hear since the dawn of the written language!
One of my personal favorite examples of writing what we hear is in the origins of the word “bird,” which was originally spelled “brid” in Old English. Enough English speakers mispronounced the original spelling that the written language just decided to adapt. “Bird” underwent a process of metathesis, in which a speaker unintentionally switches two letter sounds in a word. The same process occurs when someone “aks” a question, or if someone discusses their “perscription” rather than their “prescription.” Neither of these pronunciations are incorrect!
Another category of misunderstandings is metanalysis, or a “false division” of words. For example, the fruit we commonly know as “an orange” was once known as “a norange,” from the Persian “nārang.” In another case, referring to “an apron” would have once been noted as “a napron,” coming from the Old French “nappe,” for tablecloth. I can understand the confusion!
This language is wildly flexible, and has experienced heavy changes in its lifetime. It’s bound to survive a few more changes. The written word has, can, and will be able to adapt to our every need—as long as we get our point across, everything will be a-okay.
I came across a great piece of advice recently that said to hold your creations outstretched to the side of your body. Every art form encourages a response—maybe the main reason you write is so that other people can see it and think about it. Naturally, you will receive some criticisms of your work, and it’s hard not to take some of those comments personally. Your piece was sourced from tender emotion—it was a labor of love, and that deserves to be recognized, darn it!
No perfect work of art has ever been created, not even by the greatest artists of all time. Yours will be criticized. When we hold our work tightly to our chest, the shots it takes hit us as well. We become beaten up with the work itself. Despite the hours and dedication we can spend on just one piece, it is important to recognize it as separate from ourselves, and accept the criticism as a chance to improve our craft. We should hold our creations to the side, so we don’t get hurt by the shots that are thrown at it.