Don’t use the almost-right word.
by Andy Scheer
Some writers could learn a lesson from Horton. That’s Horton the elephant, in whose mouth Ted Geisel (aka Dr. Seuss) put these words: “I meant what I said, and I said what I meant. ”
Sometimes, to their detriment, writers don’t quite say what they mean.
As Samuel Clemens wrote, “The difference between the almost right word and the right word is really a large matter—it’s the difference between the lightning bug and the lightning.”
Take this inquiry I received, which began: “Your agency continues to peek my interest.”
It’s nice that she’s willing to glance at the agency. But “peek” means something far different from “pique”—or “peak,” such as the one named for Mr. Pike.
[cryout-pullquote align=”left|center|right” textalign=”left|center|right” width=”33%”]Ask someone whose eyes you trust to review your cover letters, query letters, proposals, and first chapters.[/cryout-pullquote]
Spell check doesn’t know the difference, so if you struggle with homophones, ask someone whose eyes you trust to review your cover letters, query letters, proposals, and first chapters—especially the opening pages.
You can’t just trust an editor to catch everything. Consider this sentence, at the bottom of the first page of the introduction of a recent trade paperback from a well-known publisher:
Whether you’re an athlete, postal worker, missionary, or government employee, haven’t you felt the insatiable draw of notoriety?
Notoriety? An insatiable draw to be “widely and unfavorably known”? In other words, notorious? I think the writer meant “widely known”—without the unfavorable aspect.
There’s an old joke about a man struggling with English who tried to impress his date. Instead of telling her she was a vision, he said, “You’re a sight.” She knew the difference.
So do our readers. We have the challenge—and opportunity—of writing in a language with a vast range of words with fine shades of meanings. Learn to write like Horton and you won’t be notorious.