Sunday, 15 February 2009

Beware crispation and distance creepage

I love the instruction manual for my laminator. I read it every time I use the laminator, because the expressions in it always make me smile. “In order to avoid crispation, please don’t insert the open side of the pouch into the laminator first”. “Crispation” is such an evocative word, it should be a real one. “Please re-laminate if the lamination is not very well for the first time”. After “accomplishment of lamination”, “book, file or other heavy things can make it more flat and good-looking”.

“As to the smutch on the covers of machine, please wipe them off by wet cloth.” “To avoid the danger of distance creepage, please don’t place the machine in wet conditions”. That last one’s got me. I wonder what they mean by “distance creepage”? I picture some poor guy sitting there with his Chinese-English dictionary scratching his head as he searches for the right word.

I take my hat off to him. His English is a hell of a lot better than my Chinese. I still find it amusing, though.

Picking the right word is often difficult, even in your native language. Roget would have been out of a job otherwise. I bet I’d be a rich woman if I had a dollar for every time a writer agonised over a word choice. Creep or sneak? Blue or azure?

So many words mean almost the same thing – but not quite. If you call a talkative character garrulous you project a very different image than if you say they’re chatty. And is she a female or a girl, broad, sheila, gal, lady, chick or woman?

The nuances of word choice are a great tool for a writer. I’m still learning to adapt my word choices to my point of view character. Clearly a Harvard professor has a different vocabulary to a five-year-old, or an old lady or a migrant fruit-picker. In direct speech I’ve always tried to show such differences. But until a year ago or so my brain hadn’t quite cottoned on to the fact that the rest of the narration should also show these differences if I was really deeply in the character’s point of view. My general narration tended to sound like me.

You’d think with all the books I’ve read that this would have been a no-brainer, but no. Finally someone hit me with the clue stick, and it’s improved my writing, though it’s still something I have to work at. Particularly when the differences between characters are not so obvious as Harvard professor versus five-year-old. It’s a bit harder to show the differences between three career women of similar age, say, or a group of kids who go to the same school. Or, in my case, a group of blood mages. I keep trying, though, because those books where all the characters sound exactly the same annoy me, and I don’t want to write one myself!

Of course it’s easier if one or more characters has a distinctive way of speaking. Maybe I need a character who sounds like my laminator manual.

“Caution, when dragon is in nearness – avoid crispation!”


  1. I really have to avoid reading Pecked by Ducks when I have insomnia. Here I am in the middle of the night trying not to wake up Goldibear by laughing out loud. Avoid crispation indeed!

  2. I also adore the word "smutch."

    The other thing to remember about voice is that not all Harvard professors sound alike, and each five-year-old has a unique voice. Just to make things even more complicated!


  3. Pandababy -- "Avoid crispation" is definitely my favourite bit!

    Jenn -- exactly! It certainly makes things challenging.