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Word Wrangling

Writing is a team sport. You, the author, are undoubtedly the MVP. In fact, you’re the coach too, and quite possibly the rest of the team. But, someone has to sell those tickets, and popcorn, and clean the bathrooms. Sitting somewhere in that pecking order is your copyeditor, or CE.

Your CE comes in once the manuscript is pretty concrete. It’s the CE’s job to whip words, sentences, and paragraphs into shape. They will evaluate the consistency of voice; they will assess paragraph content and structure; and they will look at word choices. This post will talk about those words. Words that pull your reader out of the story to think or push them into the story to feel. Let’s see where simpler word choices might make more sense.

Most authors write in stages, or layers as I like to call them. They tell themselves the story in the first draft, then refine that story in each subsequent draft. Much like I am doing in the first draft of this post. Many authors start with big words and long sentences, and in a lot of manuscripts those make sense, but in many they don’t.

Before we continue, I will define the words I will use. I learned these terms from my first real writing teacher, Joanna Rose of The Attic Institute in Portland, Oregon, and they have stuck with me since.

Latinate language: English words that convey a conceptual or abstract idea.

Saxon language: English words that convey a more visceral idea or feeling.

Here are some examples:

  1. Latinate: “Lena looked over the wall and observed her mother conversing with the Witch.”
  2. Saxon: “Lena looked over the wall and saw her mother talking with the Witch.”

Latinates convey a more nuanced and detailed meaning, but they slow the pace of the story and have a tendency to “bump” the reader out of the moment. Saxon language is simpler, but it flows very easily and keeps the reader close to the story. Using one or the other is a stylistic judgment call, and neither are wrong, but they can have a significant impact on the pace of a story.

Below is a paragraph from a manuscript I helped edit. I will point out a few places where Latinates have been used and where it may fit the story better to go with a Saxon replacement. I have changed character names to respect the author’s work.

  1. Paragraph as written by the author: “Dara signals the musicians. They end their plaintive song and strike up a livelier one, the drums beating an infectious rhythm, the tambor jingling.” There are a few Latinates in this paragraph that the author may want to reconsider “signals,” “plaintive,” and “infectious.” This passage is about music and dancing. It should flow well and keep the reader close to the action. I would ask the author to consider something like, “Dara waves to the musicians. They end their sad song and strike up a livelier one, the drums beating in rhythm, the tambor jingling.”
  2. Paragraph as written by the author: “The air is electric tonight. I am nearly positive I will see the Northern Lights, if I look in the right place. I realize that the stars have already begun to fade, that the moon has begun to rise. I keep my eyes trained on the horizon and urge the horse onward, leaving the ghosts behind.” This is the end of the manuscript, an intense escape scene where the protagonist races away from city guards. It should be heart-pounding and fast, and it is, but it could be faster. I would recommend changing out “nearly positive,” “realize,” and “urge.” I have also omitted a few words to keep the pace up. Something like, “The air is electric tonight. I am sure to see the Northern Lights, if I look in the right place. I see that the stars have begun to fade, that the moon has begun to rise. I keep my eyes on the horizon and push the horse onward, leaving the ghosts behind.”

Word choices are highly personal to an author, and only they can say which ones convey their story best. Small word tweaks can help express the feeling authors’ are after by pulling the reader into the story, or by pushing them away. It is a copyeditor’s job to highlight and offer those choices. Happy word hunting!

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