#SecondThoughts: Beta Readers

The subject of beta readers is a surprisingly contentious one.  At one end of the spectrum you have those who think you shouldn’t move without consulting one, and at the other people who wouldn’t touch a beta with a 10 foot barge-pole.  For this post, I’ll be taking the view laid down by the Anglican church with respect to confession – all may, some should, none must.

The term has been around for comfortably more than a decade, and has been borrowed from the software industry.  A quick look round and I can’t find an exact etymology for the term, but it looks like a label that was first applied in the earlier years of this century, but a practice that was in use before.  This is something widespread – think about all the books you’ve read where the author acknowledges those that took the time to read the book before it was published, and provide feedback.  Sometimes this is limited to an editor, sometimes there is a longer list, varying from a couple of people to a full blown cabal.

Every now and again the #WritingCommunity on Twitter starts discussing this, and I’m sure the same is true of other social media writing communities, not to mention the various real-life groupings and courses that are out there.  Recently I saw a particularly vociferous response against the use of betas.  Stripping out the emotive rhetoric, the argument can be summed up as ‘you should have the courage to write the story you want without interference, it’s your story, not someone else’s’.  It’s not a terrible point, and does show that you need to be careful about how you use beta readers and why.  The major problem that I had with the article (aside from the damning of everyone else’s opinion out of hand) was that it was shored up by the example of the pulp writers of the early 20th Century, people who were batting out copy at a ferocious rate.  They, the writer argues, didn’t worry about beta readers, and neither should you.  The problem with that, I think, is that there is some very bad writing in that oeuvre, and it would have benefited from a read-through.  It was written, however, at a different time for a different market.

So why use a beta reader?  Is it just from lack of confidence?  Is it just a desire to have your ego stroked?  There are a lot of people out there talking about what they are writing and the problems that they are facing.  There are people who go through round after round of edits and don’t seem to get anywhere, and don’t want to show anyone what they’ve written until it is perfect.  There are things that make perfect sense in our heads, and we think we’ve made it clear when we put it down in black and white, but it is all too easy to make a ‘magic step’ that we know is there, but the reader, without the support of what’s in our heads, falls down.

But it is worth being careful about who your beta readers are, and you do need to be careful about how you use them.  Dumping your MS on a friend is unlikely to be useful.  You don’t want someone who is just going to be kind, you want someone who will tell you the hard truths.  You don’t someone who is just going to read through your MS, you want someone who is going to engage with it.

You’ve spent time and effort getting this book together, it makes sense to make sure that it is as smooth as possible.  You might get different feedback from different people – that’s not a bad thing, it’s just a thing that you have to deal with.  It’s your story.  You’ve written every word, but you’ve jumped back and forth adding and changing bits as a result of changes in direction that you’ve taken or issues that have cropped up that you didn’t plan for.  Does your story still make sense?  Have any of the characters done anything uncharacteristic?  Are there any plot holes that you’ve overlooked?  Your betas, if you use them, are not just another reader: they are there to help you, but make their life a bit easier and tell them what you would like them to focus on – and you might have a different set of instructions for a different beta.  Everyone has their strengths (and weaknesses) and it pays to know these and work to them, where possible.  I’d strongly recommend reading Debs’ take on this, too.

I mentioned earlier that the term was one borrowed from the software industry.  It’s also one that is evolving and is in a bit of a fight with other terms too.  It’s important to be clear what you’re looking for in a beta.  Sometimes beta is being used when really we should be talking about an alpha reader.  Not everyone uses an alpha reader, but some people are lucky enough to have someone they can trust to try very early drafts on – particularly helpful when things are not gelling properly.  Critique partners can fulfil a similar role in a different way.  In the gig economy, people are putting themselves out there as beta readers for hire.  These people are not editors and often their only link to writing is that they like to read a lot.  Good on them for finding a way to make their hobby pay, but be careful – what can such a person offer you?

All may – it can be helpful, it’s worth considering, but it’s your story, and you need to remember that when looking at feedback.

Some should – we’ve all read stuff and we wonder what the editor was thinking allowing certain things through.  But perhaps they didn’t have a strong enough relationship with the writer to say ‘I think you need to change this bit’.

But, none must.  It’s your story, and if you think it’s perfect, send it off to an agent.  They might disagree, whether or not your book has been read by a beta.  But don’t just do what your betas say – at the risk of repeating myself, it’s your story.

© David Jesson, 2020


#FF Prompt: The Feud

“Of course, you realise, this means war!” said Bugs Bunny, breaking the fourth wall after he’d been insulted or something by the antagonist.  Who’s going to feud in your story? Why? How low are the stakes that are being fought over?

Anything goes – so long as it’s nothing NSFW.

Word count: 200-500 words
Deadline: by 8 am (GMT) on Sunday 12th July 2020

Don’t forgot, if you miss the deadline, you can always post your story to our #TortoiseFlashFiction page

Post your story on your site and link to it here in the comments below, or drop us a line via the contact us page and we’ll post it for you.

#SecondThoughts: Characters and transition to other media

Debs and I first met through a bookclub.  Fairly regularly, but not at the end of every meeting, we would round things off by playing the “who should play the main characters in the film?” game.  Sometimes it would be fairly clear cut, with consensus achieved within a name or two.  Sometimes, it was much harder.  Now that Debs and I are working on a shared writing project, sometimes the only way to match up what a certain character looks like is to think of who would play them in the film or TV series.  For me, the easiest character to cast in this setting is Cledwyn Cadwallader, better known to his friends as Tinkerbell.  No spoilers here, but the mental image I have is Brian Cox (the actor, not the musician/physicist), and Billy Blind started out in my head as being some sort of cross between Sid James and Dick Van Dyke, although I think now I would like to see Toby Jones in the role (although I’m not sure Debs and I have yet reached a consensus on this!).  Some of the other characters have been harder to place, and from time to time, impressions change.  Jack Runward, despite being one of the key characters for kicking off the story in my head was quite hard to think about.  I had a flash of recognition when rewatching the 2011 film version of Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy.  There is a scene early on when Jim Prideaux (played by Mark Strong) is walking down a street in a town in the then Czechoslavakia.  It is possibly a trick of the camera work, but there is a quality to the way that Prideaux/Strong walks down the street, apparently unhurriedly, but such that he is moving deceptively quickly.  For me, this mapped perfectly to a description of Jack that Debs wrote, and suddenly I could see Strong playing Jack.  I think the only failure that we have had is Michaela: she has proven very difficult to cast, for a variety of reasons.

Getting the casting right, so to speak, is easy when you are able to cast anyone you like, but of course if there is one adaptation, then there might well be others, including stage adaptations.   Google estimates that at least 43 people have played Sherlock Holmes in various adaptations.  Basil Rathbone is the one that I grew up with (repeats, repeats), but I think Jeremy Brett was possibly one of, if not the best.  Still, Michael Caine in ‘Without A Clue’ gives a solid and completely appropriate performance (even if he is really Reginald Kincaid, an actor hired by Dr Watson).  We can also look to Willy Wonka: there are two very different performances, one by Gene Wilder and the other by Johnny Depp.  Neither are the Wonka of the book, so a definitive portrayal is still to be given, but both acted the role in a way which fit with the adaptation that was being made.

When multiple adaptations are made, sooner or later there will be some casting decision that will cause furore amongst those with an emotional investment in the story.  For example, Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, the stage play based around the children of many of the main characters, saw Hermione being played by a black actress.  JK was quick to support the decision, commenting that nowhere in the books does it say that Hermione is black or white.  But that, as they say, is another story.  Except for one slight digression, if you’ll permit me.   I went to see the new production of Oklahoma last year at the Chichester Festival Theatre, and it was an excellent.  The casting had been done ‘blind’: I don’t know if they had done anything in terms of seeing if the actors gelled at all, but they filled the roles with the best actors that auditioned regardless of any other factors. But I can’t help wondering about this, because whilst two of the key characters were black, none of the chorus were, and I couldn’t help feeling that this was a mistake. Further, the black actors played Jud Fry and Laurey, which added an unexpected, perhaps even unwelcome dimension to their relationship.  We need more diversity in story telling and in the dramatisation of those stories.  We also don’t want particular plays to become bastions of racism because you ‘can’t cast that actor in that role’.  But there does need to be some thought to the whole picture that is being presented. Diversity is not having two actors, out of a cast of fifty or so, not looking like the rest.  /Rant.

I’ve been thinking a lot about this recently with the announcement of the new BBC America series, The Watch, based on the characters and back story of the Ankh-Morpork City Watch in Terry Pratchett’s Discworld series.  The novels (Guards! Guards!, Men-At-Arms, Feet of Clay, The Fifth Elephant, Jingo, Night Watch, Thud!, Snuff) are some of my favourites.  The casting announcements and some of the pictures coming out of the production have been quite divisive amongst the fan base.  There are some raised eyebrows and much profanity on social media, at one end of the spectrum, and soothing noises and interest in the interpretation at the other.  For myself, with every announcement, I’m moving more to a position of ‘I’ll take a look, but this is not Terry Pratchett’s City Watch’.   Leaving aside issues with story-line that has been revealed so far, there are one or two decisions, which individually could have been made to work. Many of the roles have been selected through gender-neutral casting, including, for example, Anna Chancellor who is to play Lord Vetinari.  This I can imagine working, and could be convinced by, although Charles Dance was near definitive in this role in the Sky adaptations of several Discworld stories.  On the other hand, I think they have not only got the casting completely wrong for Lady Sybil Ramkin, but have missed an opportunity.  Lady Sybil is of an age with Sam Vimes, whom she marries in due course, is robust and Rubenesque, and has little interest in current affairs, being more interested in breeding dragons.  She went to a jolly hockey-sticks kind of private school.  Imagine Ruth Jones (Nessa in Gavin and Stacey) chanelling Joanna Lumley.  Instead we get someone who is much younger than Vimes, slim, and is apparently some kind of vigilante.

I also find myself deeply disappointed in the treatment of Cheery (later Cheri) Littlebottom.  Pratchett had an excellent grasp of narrative and cliche, and subverted them wherever possible.  He also did his best to scotch stereotypes and reveal the humanity in all his characters, even the ‘baddies’.  With the little information I have, it feels like BBC America have tried to make things easy on themselves by removing any species that makes life a bit difficult for the props/sfx department.  So Cheery is now human.  They’ve tried to deal with this by making the character non-binary.  Cheery had her own prejudices to overcome, and whilst there are those who would argue that it’s great that this issue is being addressed, I can’t help feeling that it’s being done in a cheap and ultimately limited way.

It’s difficult to know how the series will play out without seeing the actors in action, but from the simple perspective of the stories, it’s already a disaster.  The characterisations will be a mixed bunch, with several characters apparently edited out, some miscast (IMO), and others moving amongst an unconvincing set, in ‘the wrong’ costumes…

The chances of The November Deadline transitioning to either the big or small screen are quite small, but the conversations that I have had with Debs have been useful for driving the writing forward, and have helped keep us consistent.

How about you?  Do you ever play the ‘who would play that role in the film?’?  Have you ever been disappointed in a piece of casting?

© David Jesson, 2020

#FF Prompt – Project Gutenberg

I can’t remember now exactly what gave me the idea for plundering the titles of the recent additions to Project Gutenberg for prompt ideas, but I can remember that Debs took some persuading to add it to our list, and was reluctant right up to the point that it actually went live.  She soon came round thought and now we see this as very much a Fiction Can Be Fun USP.


This is a deceptively simple #FlashFiction prompt but does require some active choice on your part…

To select your prompt, go to the Recent Books section of the Project Gutenberg website. Pick a book whose title makes you go ‘ooooh I know what I want to write about …’ and there you have it – your #FlashFiction prompt for this month.

Do have a good browse while you’re there – you could find even more reads to add to your massive TBR lists – and all at no cost!


Word count: 500-750 words
Deadline: 8 am GMT on Sunday 14th June 2020

Don’t forgot, if you miss the deadline, you can always post your story to our #TortoiseFlashFiction page.

A reminder to new readers/writers, please post on your own site and add a link in the comments section below.  If you don’t have your own blog or similar outlet, do send us your story via the contact form on the About page and we’ll post for you, with an appropriate by-line.  

Two caveats if you want to go down this route: if you want to retain the copyright, then you will need to state this, and this is a family show, so we reserve the right not to post anything that strays into NSFW or offends against ‘common decency’.

Now with added…Flair!: The Pirate Costume

There are several ways in which Debs and I meet new writer-friends, one being through the shared experiences of the April A2Z Challenge.  Our reading interests overlap a great deal, as you might expect, and we share a great deal of admiration for this month’s guest, Melanie Atherton Allen.  Melanie has an amazing imagination, and the way in which she is able to produce coherent bodies of work from multiple perspectives is a joy to behold.  There is a temptation to compare some of her work to…well, I won’t say, because that would be to do Melanie a disservice.  She is herself, and you should check out her ‘blaugh’ for yourself.  But now, over to Melanie!

The DoctorThank you, David and Debs, for inviting me to do this! It has been a surprisingly difficult piece to write (because I am usually a 100% fiction kind of gal, and I’m actually not sure I even know how to write about me), but that made it all the more interesting to me as a project.

Interesting—and also really, really hard. Really, I don’t know how you memoir people do it! This essay is about the seventh or eighth time I’ve tried to approach the subject, which is supposed to be about me and my genre. How does my life intersect with my fiction? That should be sort of obvious, or so I thought.


And then I sat down and started probing. Sort of poking at my writing, this way and that, looking for the places where I came in. And I found plenty of me in my writing—my voice, my ideas, my interests, the whole life of my mind. But all I could say about that was “I seem to write what I like to read,” which, though a good working principle, isn’t exactly personal.

The-Kitchen-MaidAt this point, I panicked, and messaged David. He came back at me with a series of helpful questions, but there was one that really unlocked things for me. “That sounds great,” he said, “but perhaps you’d like to comment on your inclination to dress up as your characters?”

And then I remembered the pirate costume.

I suppose, before we get to the pirate costume, I should explain about my website, www.athertonsmagicvapour.com. I don’t call it a blog (though I sometimes call it a blaugh), because it is my understanding that blogs get updated regularly. With Atherton’s Magic Vapour, this does not happen.

Yeoman-twoWhat Atherton’s Magic Vapour does contain is several of my more eccentric creative projects. Many of these projects include pictures of me, dressed up as various characters. A good example of this is a thing called Alas!, which is a complete Edwardian-era mystery novella (50,000 words!) that I wrote during the 2015 April A To Z Blogging Challenge.

In Alas!, I tell the story of the murder of the wicked Lord Cadblister from the perspective of 26 different people (The Aunt, The Bastard, The Constable, The Doctor… etc.), and include a picture of myself, dressed up as each character, with each day’s chapter.

So, obviously, I do feel inclined to dress up as my characters. But why? I still don’t exactly know, but something happened when I started to think about the question. I seemed to see before me the image of a small girl. I see her still. She is impressively dirty. Her blonde hair is wild and tangled. Her ears are enormous and stick out surprisingly from her head. And she is dressed as a pirate. That would be me, age… well, I have no idea, actually. Let’s say I was eight.

The-InspectorIt wasn’t a great pirate costume—just your basic red-and-white-striped shirt and black pants (both artistically tattered). It was made of that horribly thin Halloween-costume material, ideal for catching cold in on a dark October night. But that didn’t matter. In that costume, I was a pirate. I remember wearing it quite a lot, and I am sure I tried to wear it even more often. I probably tried to wear it to school but was thwarted.

Recently, I was going through an old file of childhood things when I came across a report from my childhood therapist. Yes, I was in therapy as a kid, because I had some fairly serious learning disabilities. Anyway, in this report, my therapist recorded my first meeting with her. I apparently looked at her, peered into her office, and announced, “I can’t bring my sword in there.” It was not a question. It was a statement.

The-WitchThe first appealing thing about this note was, of course, the fact that I apparently had a sword with me at my therapy appointment. I remember, alas, nothing of this incident, but I’m quite sure that the sword in question was the plastic cutlass which came with the pirate costume. So—yay small Melanie, for going to therapy armed and ready for trouble.

But the other thing that I find pleasing about this little snapshot from my sordid past is this: that I had an eye to the etiquette of the situation. I took one look at that office and said to myself, nope. No swords in there. I am sure that I was inhabiting the role of the noble pirate as I saw him. Interpreting the therapist as a lady well-disposed to pirates, I decided it would be wrong to come armed into her home. Or anyway, that is how I re-construct the thing now. It is, in any case, a narrative consistent with the sort of kid I was. I took everything with deadly seriousness. Everything.

Anyway, I feel that this story shines a light on why I love dressing up even now. It transforms. It turns a very confused little girl into a confident, yet polite, pirate.

Me as Simon Wake la

© Melanie Atherton Allen, 2020 (Article and Photos)

© Fiction Can Be Fun, 2020 (Introduction)


#WritersResources: How to format a manuscript

I’ve been trying to get more of my short-form fiction into (paying) magazines, which is one of the drivers for the changes to the blog that have been happening recently.  One of the key tenets for the magazines is, it doesn’t matter how low-key your blog, once it’s out there, it’s published.  So whilst I still want to share my writing, from my perspective it’s going to be much more of the micro/flash fiction and the experimental stuff.  And I’m using ‘Flash Fiction’ here in both senses – stuff that is written on a short deadline (no time to over-think things!) and stuff that is quick to read, typically 1000 words and under.  Anything over this is going to be heading to a magazine, probably.

As with everything to do with writing, there is a learning curve.  The publishing industry has been around for a while, and despite the digital revolution there tends to be not just a way of doing things, but THE way of doing things.  Some of these date back to the time when you would have sent a type-written manuscript in the post to the editor.  If they didn’t like it, they’d send you the manuscript back and you could hawk it elsewhere.  If they did like it, then they might scribble some changes they wanted, perhaps to fit with a house style, perhaps because they had it in for the Oxford comma, and send it back for changes, or agreement to the changes.  They might simply scribble on it and send it downstairs to the typesetter.

Cutting to the chase because, for reasons that will be self-evident in a moment, I want to keep this post brief, there is a standard format for manuscripts.  This is not to say that all magazines conform rigidly to this standard, nor that all magazines follow it at all.  However, having been less successful than I might have liked, and having had to submit certain stories to successive magazines, I have noticed that many editors direct prospective authors to one or other of two key  articles on formatting.  These are worth a read (links below), but not when you are in the process of trying to re-format your work ready for submission.  All the information is given, but not in a nice succinct way to make your life easier.  What I have done here is to pull out the key points for easy reference.

DISCLAIMER AND HEALTH WARNING: Always check what the magazine wants first.  These points are to help if someone refers you to either Shunn’s style guide or McIntyre’s, but it’s up to you to make sure that your document is formatted correctly – Fiction Can Be Fun cannot be held liable if your story gets rejected out of hand because it’s in the wrong format.  My opinion of the features of the standard format doesn’t matter, so I’m not going to give it.  It’s what’s been asked for, and that, as they say, is that.

All of that said, the two style guides mentioned are written as essays, with the formatting discussed.  This is a great visual reference, but a complete pain if you are frantically trying to sort things out so:

  • Courier or Times New Roman fonts.  Nothing else.
  • 1″/25 mm margins on all sides.
  • Double spaced.  Not 1.5, not 3, definitely not single.  Double.
  • Do not justify the text, leave it left aligned, with a ‘ragged’ right edge.
  • Do not leave lines between paragraphs.
  • Indent the start of a new paragraph.
  • If you have a section break (in the sense of the narrative, rather than with respect to formatting) mark it with a single #, centered.
  • If your text requires italics for emphasis, then italicized words should be underlined.
  • Mark dialogue with speech marks and remember what Shunn says:

“When a new person speaks, start a new line.”

  • As a header, place Surname/Key word/ page number in the top right corner.
  • Some people want a cover page, in which case the header starts on the first MS page.
  • Start the MS half way down the first MS page.  Just above this, put the document title, then your byline.  Top right, your name, your address, email. Top left, ~ word count (rounded to the nearest hundred for a short story and 500 for a novella).
  • If you are doing a cover page, put the title about a third of the way down, byline underneath this.  Your name, address etc goes a further third down the page, on the left, and the approximate word count goes to the right.
  • Some people end the document with ‘End’, to indicate the end.

Hope that helps.  If you’ve got some top tips, stick them in the comments!


ZotA: A reflection on our A-Z Journey

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As we may have mentioned once or twice ;), we’re both great fans of April’s A-Z Blogging Challenge. Set up by Arlee Bird back in 2009, it’s grown like topsy since that time.

It would probably be fair to say that 2020 has been a strange year.  The zeitgeist can be summed up by the conversation between 2019 and 2020:

2019:  I can’t believe I managed to out-do the last few years!

2020: Wait until you see what I’ve got in store! [Waggles eyebrows]

We started the month by saying neither of us were able to participate this year.  There were a number of excellent reasons for this, not all related to the implications of lives affected by the implications of Covid-19.  Both of us prefer to have a linking theme to work with, and both of us are haunted by the behemoth that our 2018 challenge ended up becoming… But we did want to do our bit. We decided instead to highlight one (or more) blogs each day, to encourage people who visit us to visit, to make new friends, and to find some entertainment during the current crazy world we’re in.  As we noted in our A2ZChallenge Survival Guide:

2. Say hello: a fundamental tenet of A2Z is going and saying hello.  The thing is, with over a thousand people, sometimes nearly two thousand, having a go at this blogging thingy, it can be tricky to know what to look at.  It is well worthwhile though – Debs and David have both met great people through the A2Z, people with whom they are both still in contact…

The Challenge could be used as a modern day update for the parable of the seeds: some blogs, despite signing up well in advance, never actually post during April; some start strong then fizzle out after perhaps a week or so; some are just not of interest to certain readers…But some make it through the entire month with entertaining content.  Surprisingly, in one sense, this last group is the majority.

Surprising to us, was that we managed to get through the month with a daily instalment of a blog or two that spoke to us in some way, inspired us to be better writers, entertained and delighted us.  Surprising not because of the wealth of excellent blogs (I’ve already said that they are there for the looking for), but because we were able to find a link to the letter of the day, and even some of the tricky ones are not that tenuous!

Some of our highlights are old friends, made during previous challenges, but some are new, and we’re looking forward to keeping up with these new friends moving forward.  We’re only sorry that we couldn’t visit more blogs, give more shout-outs.

Thus ends another challenge, and we’re delighted to be in the survivors club, given that we didn’t think we’d be doing the challenge this year!


© Fiction Can Be Fun, 2020

#FlashFiction Prompt – The Thesaurus Challenge

Following up on last week’s #SecondThoughts, we thought it might be fun to have a go at putting the thesaurus through it’s paces.

Walk, verb: to move along on foot.  According to thesaurus.com (an online version of Roget’s 21st Century Thesaurus), the following are all synonyms for walk

go on foot
hit the road
hoof it
knock about
take a walk
travel on foot
wend one’s way


So the challenge is to pick at least five of these and fit them into your story in the sense in which they are intended.  No Lucien Freud style lists!

Exactly 500 words – on your marks, get set go!Be it fairy tale, thriller, steampunk, romance, pick your genre and write (with the usual NSFW proviso)!

Deadline: 8 am on Sunday, 3rd May 2020.

A reminder to new readers/writers, please post on your own site and add a link in the comments section below.  If you don’t have your own blog or similar outlet, do send us your story via the contact form on the About page and we’ll post for you, with an appropriate by-line – you retain the copyright.

One caveat, if you want to go down this route: this is a family show, so we reserve the right not to post anything that strays into NSFW or offends against ‘common decency’.

An A-Z Journey through the Challenge: Z

As we may have mentioned once or twice ;), we’re both great fans of April’s A-Z Blogging Challenge. Set up by Arlee Bird back in 2009, it’s grown like topsy since that time. As neither David nor I are able to participate again this year, we decided instead to highlight one (or more) blogs each day, to encourage you to visit, to make new friends, and to find some entertainment during the current crazy world we’re in.

Some of these highlights will be old friends we’ve made during previous challenges, but some will be new. We don’t plan to stick to any theme other than maintaining a (possibly tenuous) connection to the letter of the day.

The final day of 2020’s Challenge – Z …

You can find participants via the Master List, but in order not to miss any of April’s blogging riches, you may also seek participants via the hashtags #AtoZChallenge and #A2ZChallenge on Twitter. For today, I’d like to add:

Zalka Csenge Virág and her Multicolored Diary.  Ok, yes, the blog is so amazing I should have introduced you to it sooner, but I plead the Challenge, and the fact that Z can be one of the more challenging letters to fill…  To say that Zalka is an expert on Folklore and Mythology would be to sell her short.  Her incredible challenge theme this year was to present the many and varied animals, insects, etc, that are to be found in folklore around the world.  With enviable scholarship, a brief bio of the creature of the day is included, together with it’s impact on a story.

If you’re catching up, here’s our previous highlights …

The letter A
The letter B
The letter C
The letter D
The letter E
The letter F
The letter G
The letter H
The letter I
The letter J
The letter K
The letter L
The letter M
The letter N
The letter O
The letter P
The letter Q
The letter R
The letter S
The letter T
The letter U
The letter V
The letter W
The letter X
The letter Y

Let us know of other blogs connected to the letter Z which we should read.

© David Jesson, 2020

#SecondThoughts: Weighing your words

I while ago I wrote a piece in defence of adverbs.  I don’t intend to rehash it here, but a precis of the thesis I put forward is that the modern directive to eliminate adverbs completely is erroneous (no matter how high profile the proponents of the concept), and that the advice to replace an adverb + verb with a stronger verb is not always correct.  An ancillary argument was that the various grammar checkers and writing aids that are available should not be followed slavishly but can be helpful to highlight things that you might want to think about.  I don’t know if anyone who does follow the no adverbs rule read the article; if they did, they certainly didn’t choose to comment.

As I say, I’m not going to tread old ground; instead I’d like to go into one aspect in more depth.  Last time I said:

The English language is full of all sorts of foibles that can be difficult to describe, let alone teach, but words tend to carry gradations of ‘weight’ and meaning.

And this is a hill I am prepared to die on – although hopefully it won’t come to that.  What I’d like to do is explore this in more depth.

In the Unbalanced Earth Cycle by Jonathon Wylie, there is a city-state, nominally a kritocracy (rule by judges/lawmakers, a form of oligarchy) but verging on autocracy, because there is a very dominant head to this group.  (Forgive me if the details are not perfectly remembered – I read these books 25 years ago, or so, and I don’t have them to hand for reference).  In this system, every ‘case’ is heard by a number of judges, with a minimum of three.  Each judge has a stone, which is the symbol of their authority.  The more senior the judge, the more their stone weighs.  At the point of judgement, their opinions are weighed, literally.  In most situations the disparity of weight is not enough to matter, but in a crucial scene, the chief judge sits on the bench, and his word carries twice as much weight as the most junior judge.  However, it’s a stitch up, for political reasons.  The chief judge wants to be seen as sympathetic to a particular cause, but there is no way that he can actually support it.  He votes for, everyone else votes against.  The fact that his word weighs more than anyone else doesn’t matter in this instance.

That’s a very literal interpretation of weighing one’s words, but when writing, we should use words with care.

“Then you should say what you mean,” the March Hare went on.
“I do,” Alice hastily replied; “at least-at least I mean what I say-that’s the same thing, you know.”
“Not the same thing a bit!” said the Hatter. “Why, you might just as well say that ‘I see what I eat’ is the same thing as ‘I eat what I see’!”

Lewis Carroll, Alice in Wonderland

It’s tempting to assume that when we look at a list of synonyms, all words carry the same weight, that they can be used interchangeably – surely that’s the definition of a synonym?  It depends to some extent on the boundary conditions that we set.  If we say, for example, the following is a list of the way horses move, then all these words do carry the same weight.

Walk; trot; canter; gallop.

Without going into the etymology of these words, without a particular knowledge of horses, we would probably be prepared to admit that these words do not have the same meaning: they are in order of the speed that we would expect the horse travel when moving.  If we were horse experts, or interested in the etymology, then we would know that a) it’s all a lot more complicated than even that and there are different versions of the trot and canter, for example and that b) the gait of the horse varies between these states.  That’s about as deep as I want to get though!

Perhaps the most famous thesaurus in the world is Roget’s, first published in 1852 and pretty much continuously in print since then.  (Of course, that might be an English-centric bias at play).  However, the earliest (known) thesaurus is credited to Philo of Byblos (there’s a name to conjure with), a scholar living in Lebanon in the second half of the 1st Century of the Common Era, and the first half of the 2nd.  Philo had a bit of penchant for catalogues, and is known for a ‘dictionary of synonyms’, amongst other works.  (There’s a bit of an overlap between the terms ‘dictionary’ and ‘thesaurus’.  Some dictionaries include synonyms, some thesauri include definitions).

When you’re young and naive, there’s a tendency to believe that taking a bit of writing and using a thesaurus to change everything round is the equivalent of presenting it in your own words.  So a walking horse is said to trot, perhaps, but we have changed the meaning, not just replaced the word.

The suggestion that exercised me so was that adverbs should be obliterated, and that a ‘stronger’ verb should be used instead.  The specific suggestion was that ‘walk slowly’ could be replaced with ‘creep’.  Perhaps I am being unduly vociferous on this subject; perhaps it was simply a poor example on the part of the person giving the advice.  Creep might be a good replacement for ‘walk stealthily’ – but you would have to look at the context.

Let’s look at some synonyms for ‘walk’:

stroll; saunter; amble; promenade; ramble; hike; tramp; march; constitutional; turn; airing.

With some of these words, we need to be careful, because context is key.  For example, ‘tramp’, like ‘creep’, can be used as a noun rather than a verb – the tramp tramped down the road.

My list is incomplete, but does serve the purpose.  We can split the list up a little:

  1. Ramble, hike, tramp, could all be used in the context of a walk through the countryside, but sticking with our ‘walked slowly’ issue, you wouldn’t necessarily use them as replacements if, for example, you were talking about difficulties in getting up a steep hill.  Hike suggests a certain purposeful direction, whilst a ramble is more aimless.  But that difficult hill…I’m more likely to walk up it slowly, pausing often for breath.
  2. March – very military, very purposeful.  But as with horses’ gaits, I might need to talk about a slow march or a quick march, because these are specific things.
  3. Constitutional, turn, and airing are, to my mind, verging on slang, but are inherently evocative in their way.  I suspect you’d have a few sentences around them though, setting the scene, and I’d be willing to bet that one of them would include ‘walked slowly’ possibly ’round the park’.
  4. Stroll, saunter, and amble perhaps sit on some sort of spectrum, and each indicate a particular physicality to the locomotion of the person, and perhaps even some sort of marker as to their mental state.

These are all great words, but context is key.

I might saunter down to the shops, if I was in a jolly mood, or even an indifferent one, tasked with something I wasn’t particularly interested in, but couldn’t be bothered to avoid.  I might even creep, snail-like, in remembrance of Shakespeare’s whining school-boy.  Equally, I might walk slowly, being mindful of the birdsong and the sussuration of the breeze in the new leaves on the roadside plantings.

I might stroll down the path to the church, but if more pensive, I might walk slowly, brooding on the gravestones, some new and some so old that all meaning has been etched away by time and the elements.  I certainly wouldn’t creep though, unless up to no good, setting the scene for a Christie-esque corpse among the tombs.

I had thought that I would include a ranking here, of the relative speeds suggested by the synonyms available, but of course it is impossible.  Any of these words verbs could be modified as necessary.  After all, Crowly didn’t Fall, he sauntered vaguely downwards.  Yes, use adverbs sparingly – it is possible to over-write something, make it too rich – but don’t limit yourself by some notion that they are rationed, that there is a quota that you mustn’t exceed.

English is a fluid language.  Words become taboo or change their meaning through usage, and in some respects that is as it should be.  But we do risk losing words as a result, words that have a specific meaning.  That meaning carries a particular weight; we can modify this weight by using other words in conjunction, but we shouldn’t assume that all synonyms carry the same weight.

©David Jesson, 2020