Don't use the Magic Word
Rant /rănt/: to speak or declaim extravagantly or violently; talk in a wild or vehement way; to rave.]
There’s a new magic word. It’s nothing like the one your mother taught you. In fact, mothers everywhere will be horrified that I’m calling it magic. I’m horrified myself. But the word frustrates me. It mystifies me. I can’t get past it – it’s everywhere I turn. It’s thrown into modern literature without profit, adding nothing. It clutters movies, like the intake of breath. And it seems to have power – like magic.
My mother’s magic word was a good word. Simple and useful – a word that got me second helpings at dinner or juice.
This new magic word can get you things too, I’m afraid. An R rating, if it’s used twice. A nice write up in Rolling Stone if you use it in your song lyrics. Critical acclaim for novelists – maybe even an award.
In fact, I can hardly find a novel to read anymore without running into the magic word. Doesn’t that make you just slightly suspicious? Like when all the journalists from coast to coast begin using the same “IT” words – viral, hubris, synergy, gravitas – and you think: What, are they a bunch of sophomores? Copying each other’s papers?
I’m just looking for a good story to read. Really. A quality plot, characters that jump off the paper, a twist or two. Something I can share with my friends – without caveat.
If I was picking up war novels, military thrillers or biographies of Snoop Dog and Eminem then, yes, I would expect to see this word peppered throughout. Soldiers don’t generally watch their language when engaged in a sudden fire fight with terrorist insurgents – I get that. Rappers who have long made a profit with their shock and awe lyrics aren’t going to say “golly gee” during interviews – I understand this too.
But those are not the books I’m checking out at the library. Those are not the books I’m looking up on Goodreads or Amazon. I’m reading women’s fiction – novels that are supposed to target me as a demographic. Still, I can’t seem to avoid the magic word. And while I know my feelings on the subject cannot be copied and pasted onto every American woman, I hear enough chatter to know I’m not the only one who wishes things were different.
Here’s a conversation I hear (or engage in) frequently in some form or another:
Here’s a conversation I hear (or engage in) frequently in some form or another:
“What have you been reading lately?”
“Oh, I just finished XYZ.”
“Was it good?”
“Yeah… (hesitation)…the story was pretty good – an interesting concept, pretty well written.” She wrinkles her nose. “I can’t recommend it, though. The language…”
“Oh, yeah. I’ve just about given up. I was so embarrassed – I recommended a book to my mom and totally forgot about the language in it! Now I’m reading ABC again.”
“Is she still writing? I’m not a fan. I’m sorry to say this, but her stories are so sappy.”
“I know, but it’s refreshing, at least, not flinching on every other page. What about EFG – have you read her books?”
She shakes her head. “She only writes about quilts and canning – and mothers who don’t get along with their daughters.”
A shrug. “I know. But at least it’s clean.”
We have learned to settle. We either sit on the porch with our grandmother’s novels or we tiptoe through the fields of modern prose, trying to sidestep the blue land mines.
But why is this word used so much? I’m honestly baffled. It’s used as a modifier more than anything – an adjective or adverb; something book editors are traditionally wary of. They say they would rather see a strong noun than a weak, modified one. And they hate redundancy – really, suddenly, quickly – these words usually end up in the recycling bin.
But the magic word? The one that has no meaning? It gets to stay.
It has a meaning, you might say.
Let’s stop there for a minute. You’re right, there is a vulgar, objectifying definition for this word, but that’s not how it’s usually used – you and I both know that.
It’s real, you might say. People talk that way.
Like, I totally hadn’t thought of that, you know? People totally do, like, use that word all the time! Like, just the other day, I was at the mall with my BFF, and she was like, OMG, did you hear that guy? He was totally, like, using bad language right in front of that old lady. Did you see her face? Like, OMG, I’ve never seen someone look so totally, you know, like, disgusted.
There are plenty of words – and abbreviations – that people use repeatedly in everyday conversation that we regularly edit out of writing. But there isn’t an author in this world that will win any awards by sprinkling them liberally through her prose. Why? Because it would make her characters sound stupid.
But the magic word? It gets to stay.
It’s gritty, you say. It shocks people – wakes them up.
Well now you’re just contradicting yourself. It’s either common or shocking. It’s not both.
I’m not going to pretend that I don’t have moral, faith-based objections to this word. You can read about those reasons in Ephesians 4:29 and Colossians 4:6, if you’d like. But even if I lay aside my moral objections, I still object creatively.
Imagine that you’re reading a novel. The main character has just reached the first critical conflict in the story and she says, “Great Scott!”
For the next 300 pages, she says it 27 more times.
I don’t know if anyone in the world is offended by the exclamation, “Great Scott!” but I guarantee that no one thinks it should appear 27 times in the same novel. Why?
Okay, I’ll grant you that. But more importantly – it’s redundant. I think the word obtuse is a great word, but if I use it 27 times in the same novel, I’m not very creative, am I?
My grandfather used to say that people used bad language because they were lazy; refusing to use their creativity and intelligence to come up with a better way of expressing themselves.
That’s all I’m trying to do with my writing. I agonize over words. I go through my manuscripts again and again. Sometimes I highlight all the adjectives and adverbs and see which ones I can get rid of. I cull my suddenly’s, my almost’s, my seems and like’s. I read dialogue out loud, emphasizing different parts of the sentence, always asking myself, does this work? Is this right? How could I take such care with every other word, and then give this useless one my stamp of approval?
I’m not suggesting that authors replace the magic word with some kind of vanilla modifier that would make Ned Flanders proud. I’m suggesting we use the creativity we presumably have to come up with something more original than a single, meaningless ejaculation repeated endlessly within our work.
Get yourself a thesaurus. Finding descriptive modifiers is not that difficult:
I hated him. He was a pathetic weasel.
"Stop,” she said, pushing him away. “Ugh! You’re such a Neanderthal.”
“Don’t pay any attention to her,” Jane said. She follows him around like a proselyte – never mind that he’s the slimiest thug on the planet.”
I’m not going to suggest that you replace the nouns and adjectives in these sample sentences with some variation of the magic word – but if you did, you’d find that they are not as descriptive with substitution. With the magic word, they tell us much less about each character, much less about their feelings in each situation.
Well, it’s really all about what sells books, you may say.
But books don’t sell very well, do they?
Books-A-Million, America’s third largest bookstore chain, announced just today that their book sales fell almost 7 percent last year. Borders is in bankruptcy and, as much as I can tell, the only product holding these entities above water are E-books (which are doing well, I’ll concede – sales jumping more than 200 percent in February, presumably with the magic word in tow).
But the million dollar question in the Publishing world is still: how do we sell more books?
Um, maybe by publishing books that women will read with pleasure and then happily share with their daughters, mothers, aunts and grandmothers?
Maybe we could look to Hollywood box office statistics that tell us the highest grossing movies are never rated R – that, actually, ANIMATED movies are literally saving box office sales because they are enjoyed multi-generationally. (http://www.usatoday.com/life/movies/news/2011-04-15-rio15_CV_N.htm)
And have you ever considered that one of the reasons the Twilight and Hunger Games trilogies – even the Harry Potter series -- did so incredibly well was because they could be shared between at least two generations of readers?
And – amazingly – they were all free of the magic word.