When I shared a recent chapter with my critique partners, one of them called me for this sentence, “He found himself in deep water.”
She didn’t understand that my POV character’s internal thought meant he found himself in trouble. She thought I put him in a swimming pool and forgot to put that detail on the page. Another problem I have… getting what’s playing in my head accurately portrayed on the page. But that’s a topic for another blog.
Her stumbling over the phrase led to a discussion of colloquial language and how words, phrases, and even clichés vary from one geographical area to another.
Being from Texas, we have a whole slew of regional words. I just used another one—slew, meaning a whole bunch. We’re always y’all-ing and gonna and fixin’ when we talk. Foreigners sometimes need an interpreter. Consider these colloquial phrases I’ve been known to use verbally and in my writing:
- hot as tin toilet seat – in Texas we know that’s HOT
- screaming bloody murder or screaming banshee– used to stop the pleasant sound coming from a kid or grandkid
- grumpy as an old sitting hen – gives a more vivid image than grumpy old men
- bone tired – yep, been there
- slow as molasses – can’t you just see that black syrup oozing out of the jar?
- keep your pants on – meaning not what you think, but to be patient!
Besides colloquialisms that slip into my first drafts, I have “favorite” words that pop up when I’m being lazy with my writing or rushing. Words like: had, that, could, was, felt, knew, thought, saw, walked, come.
“Weasel words” Margie Lawson, editing guru, calls these words and colloquial phrases. I learned in her deep editing class, The EDITS System, to keep a WEASEL WORD CHART listing phrases, overused word, throw-away words, clichés and opinion words. The chart is easy to populate. The words we overuse stand out like sore thumbs. (Sorry, Margie had to use a cliché to make my point.)
Then, during the revision stages, I use the chart with my word processor’s search and replace function to eliminate them.
BUT sometimes using colloquial language fits characterization. Sometimes it has a function in dialogue especially if the protagonist is a Texan or the piece is written about Texas.
Throwing such informal colloquialism into novel narrative, on the other hand, can be a stumbling block for readers by pulling them from the story. And, then they do what no writer wants—quit reading!
If using colloquialisms is your writer’s voice, okay. I caution you to be sure your reader can understand from the scene context what you’re saying.
REMEMBER: Our writer’s responsibility is to always make sure in the battle of words that story reigns.
What did I do with my CP’s suggestion? Eliminate the phrase or not?
In this case, I believed the reader could discern the meaning from the rest of the scene and left the phrase “deep water.”
What are your favorite colloquialisms and weasel words? Do they slip into your writing?
I had a short story that was edited by someone from Australia. There were a bunch of terms I used that she was unfamiliar with – can’t remember them now, except Mary Janes (the little girls’ shoe) – so I emailed the list to my sister who lives in Melbourne and asked her to translate them for us.
A friend from Korea used to say deep kimshee. (I’m sure that’s not spelled right.) Having actually smelled and then tasted it, I think that might be worse than high water.
I doubt there is anyone in the world who would not understand that phrase and shudder.
Having lived in Korea and I totally agree that deep Kimchee would be pretty bad. Thanks for stopping by the porch, Jody. btw, you weren’t the CP who didn’t understand. LOL
Loved this post! Hot as a tin toilet seat … HA! I’d never heard that one but I love it. We do a lot of y’all-ing, gonna, and fixin’ here in NC too. Editorial surprises are always good for a laugh, especially if we’re the first to catch them :D
The words I almost always use way too much are that, just and even. I think everyone uses “that” a lot. Colloquialisms…hmmm. Honestly, I don’t think I use too many because I try to avoid them and come up with something new. I can’t think of any at the moment, at any rate. Great post, though! I’ve never heard “hotter than a tin toilet seat” but that made me crack up!
Good for you keeping the weasel words out. Those hot toilet seats are what have us heading to Colorado every summer. LOL