As a technical writer, I have a lot of anxiety about releasing documentation with errors. Sometimes I lie awake and wonder if I should have had another person review the godforsaken diagram I’ve been toiling with for two months. The diagram chases me through my dreams. (And I have reason to believe that I haven’t seen the last of that bastard.)
This weekend, I read Into Thin Air by Jon Krakauer. The book is about Krakauer’s disastrous expedition to the top of Everest during which an unusually large number of people died. At the beginning of the story, the author laments that when he returned from the trip — badly shaken, of course — he had to get right to work pounding out the contracted 17,000-word article detailing the tragic adventure for Outside magazine, who paid for the trip. Under the wire, he bungled some facts and made a major error that he says caused a lot of pain to the family of one of the deceased.
Now let’s discuss what’s worse: falsely representing the events surrounding the death a person who perished on Mount Everest during the deadliest season on the mountain vs. incorrectly labeling an arrow on a diagram in a software manual that 27 people might read.
Perspective. I have some now.
Last night, I was finishing Brave New World and came upon this sentence:
“Nice tame animals, anyhow,” the Controller murmured parenthetically. “Why don’t you let them see Othello instead?”
I love this unexpected use of an adverb that would normally put one to sleep. (Parenthetically is frequently used in this context: “Page references are cited parenthetically in the text.” Zzzzzzzzzz.)
The author of Brave New World, Aldous Huxley, loved parenthetically so much that he used it twice within a few pages. The second reference was less entertaining, but still fun:
“There was a man called Cardinal Newman,” he said. “A cardinal,” he exclaimed parenthetically, “was a kind of Arch-Community-Songster.”
For the record, Brave New World doesn’t have a place on my “read it again” shelf. I acknowledge the brilliance and eeriness of Huxley’s predictions for our future, but I wasn’t too engaged in the story, for whatever reason.
You should: http://www.swaptree.com
This is a useful site if your parents-in-law are super-fast readers who blow through mass-market fiction and leave stacks of nearly-new paperbacks in your guest room.
I only trade books that I don’t really like, so that limits the selection of books I can receive. If I were to trade all the once-read favorites on my bookshelf, I’d expand my trading choices quite a bit.
Went in the mail Saturday: Marley and Me
Receiving in exchange: Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil
Going in the mail today: Best Friends
Receiving in exchange: Into the Wild
Posted in Reading
Tagged Books, Reading
Stephen King used this descriptor in The Green Mile, which I read this week. I was all, “Really? Painfully thin? Are you sure?” But I imagine that someone who has written as many millions of words as King has must run out of modifiers at some point.
Interestingly, he followed painfully thin with a less-cliched description that could’ve replaced it altogether, something like, “He was painfully thin, as if recovering from a long illness.” I have to admit I forgave his placement of the overused modifier upon reading the long illness part.
You should be familiar by now with my hatred of The Russian Concubine. Unfortunately — but not unexpectedly — the novel includes several “love scenes.” One of these “love scenes” contained a word so offensive, so inappropriate, that it deserves its own blog post.
Spoiler alert: sometime in the last 1/4 of the story, the non-concubine Russian girl and the non-concubine Chinese guy have sex. The scene is repulsive from many angles. For one thing, just three days before, the Russian girl had dragged the Chinese guy out of a roofless hovel, where he was covered in maggots and minutes from death. Three days before. Hardly time enough to get over the maggot factor, but even if the girl could push that image from her mind, the man probably should have spent his scant resources on building enough strength to run from bad guys — or walk to the bathroom.
At some point during the gruesome and improbable love scene, the author describes one of the girl’s movements. The word she chooses: bucked.
Here is where I submit that one should never buck during a love scene.
I just finished reading On Writing by Stephen King, a book that pairs useful information about the business of writing with personal anecdotes about King’s career. It wasn’t a page-turner, but I did look forward to picking up the book whenever I had a free moment.
Toward the end, though, King risked losing my appreciation when he wrote: “… but it’s not all about speed … And if you think it’s all about information, you ought to give up fiction and get a job writing instruction manuals — Dilbert’s cubicle awaits.”
I probably shouldn’t be offended as he’s not actually talking to me here. I am a technical writer first and a “fiction writer” second, if at all. He’s talking to the starving artist in the corner at Orchard Valley Coffee who is using the free Wi-Fi and nibbling his scone slowly enough to last through lunch. I’m not that starving artist because I did choose technical writing over more romantic literary pursuits, for better or worse.
Even if he’s not talking to me, King’s obvious disdain for instruction manual writing does offend me a tiny bit. Working in a cubicle — in fact, I have an office with a soundproof door and a window that opens — may sound like worse-case scenario to a creative. But most days, I get paid to practice the nuts and bolts of writing; I work with editors, I interview sources, I trim out the useless adjectives, I’m challenged to see a subject from a perspective other than my own. It’s not such bad way to spend a writer’s time.
I chose particular as this week’s useless adjective because I noticed that in my technical writing, I was using “particular,” “specific,” and “certain” where such words were arguably extraneous. For example, “You can open certain ports on particular servers.” I could just as effectively say, “You can open ports on your server.” Is the meaning the same? Maybe not; I meant that only some ports could be opened on some servers. But the context of the sentence should make that clear. If it doesn’t, I should work on the context.
After I selected this potentially useless adjective, the first blog post I read contained particular. I won’t link to it because I only read that (particular) blog to see how many people the author has offended today. She wrote, “I really enjoy this particular group of mothers.” At first, I thought particular was called for. But upon further thought, I think the sentence is fine without it: “I really enjoy this group of mothers.” With particular she may be trying to single out this group, to say that she likes them more than other groups of mothers. But she could go on to explain why this group appeals to her compared to another group, if that was her point. (And she does, actually.)
Am I being particularly picky about particular? Are there cases when it’s a useful adjective?