Know When to Use a Two-Bit Word
Language: words thrown together to communicate with others? or perhaps words chosen carefully to convey a specific mood or message?
This week's lesson is on the value of vocabulary. "You can move beyond the plain to memorable writing, but only if you have the vocabulary to go from plain/mundane/banal/pedestrian/quotidian words to memorable and exciting ones."1
But, just because we know fancy-schmancy words, doesn't mean it's always appropriate to use them. This is my favorite example from Mastering the Craft: "If a cheetah is chasing a zebra, it's trying to kill it, not . . . attempting to effect a termination of its earthly existence."
I agree with Mr. Wilbers when he says, "From the coarsest language to the most elevated diction, word choice matters. Have the courage--and conviction--as well as the nimbleness and the creativity--to be as elegant, gracious, tender, irreverent, forceful, shocking . . . as the occasion warrants.
"And don't forget: Although you need a broad vocabulary, sometimes the two-bit word is best."
Look at a passage you've written. Are there words that can be strengthened? Are there cliches that need fixing? What about sentences that can be more precise?
TAMARA: Here is my two cents, or is that 'two bits?' I'll answer that question later, right now I will admit after all that work of collecting good words from Week 4, I was little disappointed at Week 5. At first, I wondered why go to all the trouble of expanding my vocabulary if I'm going to end up using an ordinary word that is more precise...or less pretentious, as the situation warrants? But, I did read the entire chapter and learned writing is not much different than other art forms where knowing the rules is mandatory before one can break them effectively. Having a broad vocabulary with a range of (Peggy's) 'fancy-schmancy' words as well as (Wilber's) 'two-bit' words seems to be the prerequisite to knowing when and where to use such words.
My favorite point about word choice, "If your primary reason for choosing a word is to impress your reader, it's probably the wrong word."2
So true. And now I should go toss out half of everything I've ever written.Okay, maybe just a third.
Back to my original question. You know me. I had go look up the expression 'two bit.' I knew that it meant "cheap; insignificant or worthless" but I was looking for the history. Turns out that 'two cents' is derived from the older term 'two bits' somehow related to poker, when a player would up the ante by putting in his 'two bits' and (I'm sure everyone else knew this but me) that a bit is one-eighth of a gold coin and two bits became equal to the US 25 cent piece. And we all know how far a quarter can
take you these days. And I'm not quite sure how all this relates to using the right word at the right time, but the way I will think of it from now on will be like spending. When a dress is on sale, I'm not going to complain that less money will get the dress in the bag--I'll use that two-bit word and save all my hard-earned vocab words for when I absolutely need to buy something full price.
2. Page 28, Mastering the Craft
Hmmm...every word I write is to impress the reader, I mean, it's all for the reader, right? But, no, I get it. I think this is related to over-writing. That's what I would sometimes hear in a writer's boot camp about my pages... "Just tell us they rolled up the window, don't tell us all the steps it took to do it." I overwrite thinking I'm sounding clever and saying something in a new way when really it just draws attention to the writing and pulls it away from the story. As Garrison Keillor said, and Wilbers quotes in this chapter, "You don't want a fifty-dollar haircut on a fifty-cent head." Fancy words will often do the same thing, pull a reader out of the story. Sure, authors put their blood, sweat, and tears into their writing, but the goal is to be invisible. (Except when we're expected to be very visible--on FB, Twitter, websites, school visits...haha)
There's a place for these words, though, so let's not throw all the beautiful, big words out, just determine when the moment is right. When I find a perfectly-placed, precise word in a book I'm reading...ahhhh, pure satisfaction.