By Pam McCutcheon
There’s a lot of misunderstanding as to the proper usage of some words in the English language, and many mistakes even make it onto the page, especially in these days of self-publication and rushing into print. It’s very difficult to proof your own writing, as I know all too well. As a freelance editor, writer, and avid book consumer, I see a lot of these mistakes. So, each month, I highlight a few of the errors I see most often.
The word she searched for was illusive.
Another word for illusive is illusory. The root for these words is the same as that for “illusion” and they share the same meaning—deception. Was the word really being sneaky and trying to deceive her? Or is this a fantasy novel where she is seeking a word spelled in smoke? If not, you should use “elusive,” which means hard to grasp or define.
This is how it should have been written: The word she searched for was elusive.
He became violent, so they put him in a straight jacket.
A straight jacket is one without curves, so it might bind his arms a bit, and maybe make him look more professional, but it couldn’t really restrain him if he became violent. However, a straitjacket has extra-long sleeves that tie together behind his back, keeping him from using his arms. That would make more sense.
In other words, it should be written this way: He became violent, so they put him in a straitjacket.
My idea isn’t quite complete yet. Let me flush it out.
Did they mean they were going to flush it down the toilet? Or maybe flush it out of hiding like a bird from the bushes? I don’t think so. Instead, they meant they were going to take the skeleton of an idea and add meat to its bones. In other words, they were going to “flesh” it out.
The correct way to write this is: My idea isn’t quite complete yet. Let me flesh it out.
Prose Pointer: Synonyms for “Said”:
New writers often get bored with using “said” to tag dialogue, so they get creative and start using words such as cried, howled, bellowed, whispered, stated, replied, voiced, expressed, vented, responded, uttered, shouted, vocalized, asserted, declared . . . you get the idea. While these are fine in moderation, too many of them draw attention to themselves. Take this imaginary conversation for example:
“Where are you?” he demanded.
“Over here,” she yelled.
“Come with me,” he insisted.
“I don’t want to,” she responded.
“I insist,” he replied.
“Too bad,” she muttered.
Intrusive, aren’t they? You notice the tags more than the dialogue, so that invisible separation between the writer and the reader is thinned and the reader begins to see the puppet master behind the curtain. Don’t do this. “Said” is invisible—use it often. Or, if it’s obvious who said it, leave off the tag altogether.
Of course, there’s nothing wrong with the occasional usage of synonyms, especially when they convey the meaning or the tone of voice better. Just don’t do it too often, unless you want the reader to feel the author intrusion.
More on dialogue tags next time!
Pam McCutcheon is a freelance editor, writer, and speaker who pens romantic comedy, fantasy short stories, and nonfiction books for writers under her own name, and YA urban fantasy as Parker Blue. Her books include the popular Writing the Fiction Synopsis (on sale through August 15!) and The Writer’s Brainstorming Kit (with Michael Waite), now available in digital form. Learn more about her at pammc.com.
Great observations and advice, as always.