Confessions of a Word Snob

I just finished Kory Stamper’s fabulous book Word by Word: The Secret Life of Dictionaries. Stamper is a lexicographer, a person who writes new definitions or revises old ones for Merriam-Webster Dictionaires. I thoroughly enjoyed Stamper’s wit and logical explanations on how she and the other MW editors come up with definitions. It boggles my mind the agony they sometimes go through and all the research that goes into getting each nuance of a word’s definition exactly right.

Even more important, though, my opinions on certain words and whether they should be in the dictionary changed, too. I know I’m not alone in eschewing words like “irregardless,” “supposably,” and “disorientated,” to name a few, but now that I’ve read Stamper’s explanation for why they are in the dictionary, I realize I’ve been wrong. As Stamper points out, contrary to popular belief, it is not the dictionary’s (and therefore the lexicographer’s) job to police the English language and leave out words that aren’t considered educated or standard usage. Rather, it is the lexicographer’s job to observe the language and include words that are gaining widespread use, whether some people believe it’s correct or not. Lexicographers are essentially reporters of trends in our English language. It is not their job to determine if a word is right or wrong.

Stamper, of course, gives a lengthy explanation on this, and I, who used to consider myself a staunch purist (I even remember when “all right” was only supposed to be two words and scoffed every time I saw it as “alright”) have totally changed my tune. I even understand why many people say, and sometimes even spell, “nucular” instead of “nuclear” now, and it’s not an indication of lack of intelligence or a sign of being a country bumpkin or redneck. Read what she says. I swear you’ll change your tune, too.

I think the point Stamper is trying to make is that if millions of people are using the incorrect form of a word, and it is showing up in print and other media as well, is it really incorrect? If we look down on someone who says “nucular,” who is really the one in the dark? English is an ever-changing language, much to many purists’ chagrin. No matter how much we think “nuclear” is correct, “nucular” is an up-and-comer. In another hundred years, maybe it will be considered standard, and people who say “nuclear” will be considered dumb for saying it. As Stamper says, “Standard English as it is presented by grammarians and pedants is a dialect that is based on a mostly fictional, static, and Platonic ideal of usage.”

I’ve realized that my prejudice against “alright” is pretty ridiculous, even though the first time I saw it in my beloved Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate, I wanted to scream. Granted, they do say it isn’t as common and is less formal in use, but they also point out it has been around as long as “all right.” And why wouldn’t we spell it as one word? We already have (as I just used) “already” and “altogether.” “Alright” actually makes perfect sense. I just hated seeing it because, to me, it was the mark of an amateur, someone who didn’t really know one of the essential tools of writing, proper grammar. But maybe I was the amateur. Or maybe I just wanted to show off my knowledge and lord it over those whom I deemed ignorant. Maybe I was a snob.

Stamper’s book also gives several histories of certain words that are fascinating, along with stories of answering correspondence (who knew you could write to the dictionary and get a reply?) and even controversies over certain words and definitions. Her book is also kind of a history of dictionaries that I found absorbing. She has managed to turn what most would consider a boring, dry subject into something delightful that, at times, had me laughing out loud.

Stamper has done what many an underappreciated employee has longed for: she’s shown us what unsung heroes lexicographers are and how hard they work (for a pretty meager salary), even though, to most people, they will forever be invisible. After reading her book and seeing how imperative an experienced lexicographer is to creating an invaluable tome such as the dictionary, I was horrified when, near the end, she said Merriam-Webster had to lay off many of their lexicographers with decades of experience because of the changing market and the transition from paper to digital.

I felt guilty for using MW’s free online dictionary and immediately bought the paid version of the app. I know my contribution will be a drop in the bucket, but now that I know the grueling and meticulous work that goes into producing a dictionary, I want to do everything I can to make sure the lexicographers are able to continue their essential work. Any lover of writing, grammar, and/or fellow word snob should want to, too.



via Daily Prompt: Adrift

So, here I am, two years after publishing my first novel To Each Her Own, finally sitting down to write a blog post. I’m glad I saw this prompt, “Adrift,” from WordPress because that word sums up exactly the way I’ve been feeling lately as a writer.

This month, May, marks a year that I’ve written a minimum of 500 words every single day but, most days, a lot more. In the last year, I wrote a trilogy about a hero with telekinesis, and, once I entered the editing phase of that after finishing my first draft, I “pantsed” a book about a burnt-out piano player. “Pantsing” is writer jargon for just sitting down with a story idea and nothing more, no plot outlines. Just a vague idea of a storyline in your head and off you go.

Pantsing used to be my method. Every story I ever wrote up until I started my trilogy was done by pantsing. Yes, I would write a summary of my story idea, but I never stuck with it. My characters always had other ideas, and I just let them take me where they wanted to go.

With my trilogy, though, I wanted it to have a tight plot and good pacing. I didn’t want to ramble or repeat things, as I’ve been told I sometimes do by readers. So I took a week to sit down and really think about the plot and used methods I’d gleaned in my writers’ association to plot out every single scene for three books.

As a result, I wrote the trilogy in six months–three full books, around 240,000 words. Of course, that was the crappy first draft, but I was confident the editing process would go quickly, as I normally love to go back through, see what I’ve written, and tweak it.

Boy was I wrong. The editing process has been difficult, to say the least. Several weeks ago, around Easter, I got the analysis back from my editor on my first book, which I naively thought I was almost done with, and was told to cut two chapters, completely change a main point of my book that bleeds into the second book (and would require rewriting the second book), and that the end was abrupt and unclear.

My first instinct was not to listen to her and to question how closely she had read my manuscript. After stepping away and coming back to her critique, though, plus reading through the parts of my story she said were unclear or needed cutting, I realized she was absolutely right on every point, that she actually had read my manuscript closely after all.

About this same time, my awesome critique partner, whose judgment I have come to rely on as gospel because she has terrific common sense, is smart as a whip, and is a stellar plotter, told me that I had gone a direction toward the end of book two in my trilogy that didn’t make sense and seemed to have come out of nowhere. I knew she was right. I had felt it in my bones, but after writing for several years now, I also knew that sometimes, when I felt my writing was crap, other people actually liked it and thought it was good. I was hoping that was the case with this element of my story, but, alas, it wasn’t so. While the words were painful to hear, I am forever grateful to my critique partner for having the guts to be honest with me. My book will be better because of it.

During all of this, I also went to a writing seminar with some friends who are traditionally published, and they blew me away with their professionalism and their ability to brainstorm with each other and plot. While that trip was enlightening, it also made me feel as though I didn’t really know squat about writing.

All these things combined to make me feel adrift as a writer. Yes, I continued to write my words every day to stay in the habit, but I felt like everything coming out of my fingers onto the keyboard was banal, aimless dreck. It was as if my fingers were deciding what to write, and my fingers don’t have a brain.

It was a terrible feeling. I like everything I’m doing to move me toward my goals, but I felt I had lost my mojo. I had honestly never felt that way, ever–at least not about writing. All that time I took to plot my trilogy hadn’t done any good. I was still going to have to rewrite and revise a bunch of it.

Meanwhile, the novel I had written just for fun (80,000 words worth) about the piano player was a meandering mess, and I had done that by pantsing. I felt like it didn’t matter which route I took, pantsing or plotting, I couldn’t write a good story. It was a terrible feeling, and I felt like quitting. To stave this off, I tried to develop other ideas, but, although I had no problem coming up with four very good ones, I couldn’t come up with decent plotlines for them.

The good news is that recently I sat down and came up with an alternate ending for book two of my trilogy which will hopefully get things back on the right track. Also, I’ve put enough distance between myself and the realization that the first book needs a lot of revision that I’m ready to get back in the saddle and deal with that, too.

Most important of all, though, I never stopped writing. I got up and wrote my word minimum every single day. It wasn’t always a story. Sometimes I just brainstormed ideas or wrote the beginning of a short story I knew no one was ever gong to read. It was just for myself. Today it’s writing this long-overdue blog.

I realize now (wow, I’m using that word a lot) that I’m not as adrift as I thought. Writing is my anchor.  No matter what comes in the future, as long as I don’t stop, I’m not adrift. I’m always learning, always improving. I am soaring.