Due to an odd convergence of classes and events and circumstances, I have found myself reading a lot of fiction manuscripts all at once and in a short time span. While I enjoy reading work and thinking as a teacher about how to make it better, I try to keep in mind that all readers are subjective, coming to any given piece with their own biases. For example, I am always thrilled to see anything set in New York City, especially if it happens to be New York City in the 1950s or 60s…not that I randomly come across many stories like that anymore. (Richard Yates, I miss you.) This little bias doesn’t mean that I can’t appreciate a story in my hand that’s set in Washington, or Arizona, or a mental ward: that’s fine.
But I do have some biases that I cannot overlook, irrational hatred of a few certain words that when I come across them, they make me long to reach for the big, mean pen to draw a big, nasty “delete.” But because these certain words are perfectly serviceable, good-enough words, I feel I can’t. Alas. To my mind—irrationally—literature would be a better place without these words (there may be more, but these are the four that never fail to get me to the “fingernails on a blackboard” point):
1. Chuckle, noun and verb. Maybe it’s just me, but I don’t even know what this is, really. I don’t think I’ve ever chuckled in my life. I’ve laughed, giggled (yes, I was girlish, once), chortled, hooted, snorted, and snickered, but I’m pretty sure I’ve never chuckled. Perhaps when I’m a kindly old lady the secret of “chuckling” will be revealed. (Under the same logic, “twinkling” eyes almost made this list, except that probably there is no other accurate way to describe Santa’s eyes.)
2. Grin, noun and verb. Now I sound like a real grinch…no words of joy or happiness allowed! “Smile” is overused (guilty myself): if only people smiled in real life as often as they do in fiction. But grins…what’s the difference? A grin sounds fake to me, as if the writer has realized he or she has been writing “smile” too often and checks out the synonyms button on Word and discovers “grin.” I say, let’s find another way altogether of showing pleasure than the simple smile. And, I say this to myself, too: my characters smile more than is good for them. (Especially if they knew what dire fate I have in mind for them.)
3. Mug, noun. At least I know what this means. But it is an ugly word just by the sound of it. Perhaps if I were a regular coffee drinker I would feel differently. My recent characters are usually drinking scotch, though, a drink that offers superior glassware options.
4. Pad, verb. People are often “padding” through the house in the dark, typically on the way to the bathroom. I’m sorry, but I walk through my house in the dark, to wherever my destination might be. Is there a different way of walking just because it’s dark? Or morning? Or you’re heading to the bathroom? I could, perhaps, accept “pad” when used to describe the way a cat walks because—hey!—cats actually have pads on their feet. (Cute little pads, too.)
As I said, I recognize that these are irrational biases on my part, and I would never circle these words in a manuscript, just as I hope people are kind to my writing and don’t circle my pretentious over-use of the word “faux” or note that people are “crossing their arms” yet again when the world is filled with alternative, equally bad body language.
Yes, yes: There’s nothing inherently wrong with these words, they’re all perfectly fine. Probably all the Nobel winners loooove those words. But I’m sure everyone has their own list of totally teeth-grittable language. If only I were a superstar teacher, on the level of U2 or the Bruce Springsteen, able to demand those oddball contracts with the bizarre requests (97 yellow M&Ms in a Waterford bowl, etc)…well, now we all know exactly what I’d demand.