Thursday, March 23, 2017

Sentence DNA

            Okay, so, a few weeks back (before the amazing ten year anniversary) I said I’d blab on a bit about words.  That time has finally come.
            Be ascared. Be very ascared.
            Anyway...
            It’s been a while, so I figured I’d bring up spelling again.  I’m sure it seems silly that I keep revisiting this topic again and again.  But there’s a reason for it.  Words are the absolute core of what we do as writers, the bare-bones building blocks.  They’re the DNA of storytelling, the atoms to my sentence molecules.
            I must have a solid, working vocabulary if I want to be a writer. No question, no excuses.  I need to know what words mean.  I have to know how to spell them.  I have to be able to tell them apart.
            That last one’s a killer.  We’ve all seen people go on about there/they’re/their and of course about its and it’s.  But I’ve seen folks mess up corporeal and corpulent. I’ve seen major websites confuse possible and posable.
            Granted, ninety-five percent of the people making these mistakes aren’t claiming to be writers.  They’re just folks trying to express their thoughts online.  This isn’t their field of specialty.  As I’ve pointed out before, I can cook, but I’m not a chef.  I can do an oil change and rotate my tires, but I’m no mechanic.  And I don’t think the folks at my garage would look down at me for not being able to tell a carburetor and a fuel pump apart on sight.
            But...
            I’d probably look down on them if they couldn’t tell the two apart.  I’d eye all their work and claims with a bit of skepticism.  Truth is, I probably wouldn’t trust them with my car anymore. It’s the kind of ignorance that calls all their work into question.
            That’s why spelling is so important for writers.  It’s one of the first benchmarks we need to pass—one of the first indicators that we know what we’re doing.  I can’t tell you how many times, as a contest reader, I would start judging a screenplay because it had two or three misspelled or misused words in the first two pages.  If I hit twenty pages and there were more than ten typos...  Well, even when I wasn’t supposed to judge on spelling, there’s simply no way that’s not going to color my thoughts when I hit another problem.
            And y’know what?  The scripts with spelling problems always had another problem. Always.
            I wasn’t alone in this, just in case you’re thinking I’m some hypercritical jerk who’s scared of newcomers taking his job or something (keep in mind, this was almost eight or nine years ago—nobody wanted my job back then).  A good number of readers—and editors and agents—are also writers.  Even when we’re not supposed to judge on spelling... we all kinda judge on spelling.
            Anybody who’s a professional in this word-making field will.
            That said... here’s a list of paired-up words.  They’re homophones or malonyms or just... well, screwups.  As always, all of these examples come from actual mistakes I’ve seen in the wild—in books, catalogs, and on various websites that try to claim a degree of professionalism.  Hell, one of these was in an article about how to be a better writer!
            Yeah, it’s just painful to think people messed up some of these...

mote vs. moot
conscious vs. conscience
defuse vs. diffuse
reign vs. rein
angle vs. angel
dual vs. duel
idle vs. idol
dyed vs. died
pique vs. peak
emulate vs. immolate
bawl vs. ball
jive vs. jibe
do vs. due
sleight vs. slight
rouge vs. rogue
marital vs. martial
hansom vs. handsome
don vs. dawn
gild vs. guild
turn style vs. turnstile

            Neat list, eh?
            Did you know what both words meant?  In every example?  Because, again, I need to know what words meanAll the words.  Not a pretty good idea, not a general sense of how it works, not pretty-sure-that’s-the-one-I’m-looking-for.  These are my basics, after all.  This is sugar vs. salt for a chef, or carburetor vs. fuel pump for a mechanic.  If I mess these up... well, I can’t be shocked when people stop treating me like a professional.
            Actually, if you don’t mind me running a bit long, I want to toss out something else here, too.  Another point I’ve mentioned before, but it still bears repeating.
            Sometimes, for storytelling reasons, maybe I want spelling mistakes in my work. Maybe it’s an epistolary story, or just a jutted-down note within the narrative, and the character in question isn’t supposed to be all that bright. Then it makes sense that they may not be good at spelling, yes?
            I need to be super-careful when I do this.  This is one of those things that can make me lose points with editors and writers.  Seriously.  I’ve seen both.
            D’you notice up above when I’d written jutted instead of jotted?  Not a huge mistake.  Understandable, even—U and O are pretty close on the keyboard.
            Which means, of course, there’s a chance that’s an actual mistake, not one I added in for narrative effect.  If I see somebody mess up they’re and their, I’m left wondering if the character’s not too bright... or the author isn’t. There’s no real way to be sure.
            Compare that to when I used ascared up top. It’s not a word you’ll find in many dictionaries, but it’s a generally accepted colloquialism. It’s also (take notes now) a spelling that would raise flags for copy editors or even the dumbest of spellcheckers. And readers. We’d immediately question how such a blatant, easily caught error made it in, and the default assumption would be that I meant for it to be.
            Y’see, Timmy, I need to be smart about deliberate mistakes in my writing. It needs to be very clear they’re deliberate—screw-ups the character made, not me.  Because if they’re not sure, most readers are going to assume it’s my mistake.  And as I mentioned above, if I make too many mistakes...
            Well, again, I can’t be shocked by how people react.
            Next time...
            This is getting tough, because I’m thinking of making Tuesday posts a semi-regular thing, but they’ll probably be a bit broader and not quite as writing-specific. So “next time” won’t actually deal with writing, but it’ll still—
            Y’know what? Just keep checking back here.  It’ll be worth it.  Hopefully.
            Until then, go write.

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