To Enfilade or Not to Enfilade

From the biography I’m copyediting: In an assassination attempt, “a remote-controlled bomb exploded, enfilading the car with shrapnel.”

Well, I had a pretty good idea what the car looked like, but “enfilading”? I had to look it up.

“Enfilade” is both a noun and a verb. In Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (online), the first definition of the noun is “an interconnected group of rooms arranged usually in a row with each room opening into the next.”

Um, no.

The second? “Gunfire directed from a flanking position along the length of an enemy battle line.”

Now we’re getting somewhere.

“Enfilade” the verb: “to rake or be in a position to rake with gunfire in a lengthwise direction.”

The American Heritage Dictionary (online) gets right to the point: “to rake with gunfire.”

The AHD entry includes an image of the architectural “enfilade,” along with this definition: “A linear arrangement of a series of interior doors, as to a suite of rooms, so as to provide an unobstructed view when the doors are open.”

By this point I’d totally forgotten the assassination attempt and the bullet-riddled Mercedes. I barely noticed that though the target of the attempt survived, his driver was decapitated.

“Enfilading,” I decided, meant precisely what the author intended, but it was not the best word for the sentence in question.

What’s wrong with it? you may be asking. If it means what the author meant, why change it? Readers can always look it up if they don’t know the word. This is what “dumbing down” is about: pandering to people who are too lazy to look things up.

Good question, and one I devoted some thought to. I’ve got a pretty big and flexible vocabulary. It’s probably my single most valuable tool — more valuable than dictionaries, more valuable even than my laptop. If I didn’t recognize “enfilading,” I had to assume that many intelligent, well-read readers won’t either. Most of them will guess — correctly — at the meaning and move on. As a casual reader, I might do likewise.

But when I’m editing, I’m not a casual reader. I’m paying close attention to the construction of sentences, the choice of words in those sentences, and the spelling of those words. When a word or a phrase stops me in my tracks, I take a second look.

“Enfilading” stopped me in my tracks. It threw me out of the text I was reading and sent me to the dictionary. Nothing wrong with that, of course — and sometimes you want a word or phrase to call attention to itself, to make readers screech to a halt and ponder or marvel at what they’ve just read.

But this is a biography, not a poem or a short story or a memoir. It contains nearly 600 pages of text, followed by almost 100 pages of notes and bibliography. More than 200,000 words altogether. The narrative is more important than the words used to create it. The words are means to that end, not ends in themselves.

Nevertheless, if “enfilade” was the only English verb that could describe what was done to that car, I’d leave it alone. But it’s not. Over the years I’ve read many, many accounts of vehicles shot up by gunfire, and every single one of them managed to get the idea across without “enfilade.” Another, less unusual word could be pressed into service without diminishing the narrative.

When I contemplate changing something that isn’t wrong grammatically or according to the dictionary, I ask myself a question: Did the author consciously settle on this word, or phrase, or way of constructing the sentence? 

Some writers are more careful stylists than others. Some of us sweat blood over almost every word. Others of us just want to tell the story. Most of us probably rework some passages a dozen or more times and let others flow by without a second glance.

Editors can’t know for sure what was in an author’s head, but within a dozen or so pages of starting a job, a capable editor generally has a pretty good idea how careful a stylist its author is. By the time I got to “enfilading,” I was 99 percent sure that my author’s focus was on marshalling facts and opinions into a coherent narrative, not on the particular words used to do it.

I also suspected that he was overusing a thesaurus to fill in gaps in his vocabulary. Not infrequently he’d employ a word that had the right dictionary definition but whose connotations or associations that didn’t suit the particular context. I had a very strong hunch that “enfilade” had come from a thesaurus, not from the author’s working vocabulary.

To enfilade or not to enfilade?

I made my decision: not. After some thought, and with a strong assist from the American Heritage Dictionary, I settled on “rake”: “a remote-controlled bomb exploded, raking the car with shrapnel.”

The author can stet his original if he wants, but I don’t think he will.

The Act of Revision

I recently began the second draft of my second novel so this post is especially timely. Revising does involve re-vision — seeing your work in new ways, from different angles. And there’s no one way to go about it. Whatever works!

charles french words reading and writing

heminwaywriting

Interviewer: How much rewriting do you do?
Hemingway: It depends. I rewrote the ending of Farewell to Arms, the last page of it, 39 times before I was satisfied.
Interviewer: Was there some technical problem there? What was it that had stumped you?
Hemingway: Getting the words right.
(Ernest Hemingway, “The Art of Fiction,” The Paris Review Interview, 1956) 1

Writing-revision

The act of revision is an absolutely necessary part of writing, no matter what kind. Essays, stories, novels, books all require that the author not be satisfied with initial drafts. “Re-vision” means to re-see, or to look at the work from another perspective. This idea is something I try to teach my students in College First Year Writing classes, and it is crucial that I apply the ideas myself to my own work.

When I look back over my writing of the last few years, I can see that…

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Clichés, Ruts & Envelopes

A creative writing teacher at San Jose State used to say about clichés: “Avoid them like the plague.” Then he’d laugh at his own joke. The class laughed along with him, but I always thought clichés got a bum rap. Because, often, they’re dead-on. But the aptness of the clichéd saying is overshadowed by the nature of the saying as a cliché.

Khaled Hosseini, The Kite Runner

Yes, I thought when I encountered this passage, in part because the cliché Hosseini’s narrator, Amir, was considering is one I find useful: the elephant in the living room, the huge hulking truth that dominates a situation even though, and because, no one in the vicinity acknowledges its existence. When I first heard it, the image was being used to describe the experience of living with an alcoholic. Not only did it ring true to my own experience, it made me think harder about it. Clichés do not make you stop and think. Quite the contrary: they enable you to blow past something without thinking too hard.

My yes was full of admiration, because Hosseini deftly manages to bring the clichéd image back to life by walking around it with a thoughtful eye. So readers will do likewise — or at least this reader did.

Cliché, interestingly enough, comes from the print trade. Originally, says Merriam-Webster’s Unabridged, it meant “a stereotype or electrotype; especially :  a single stamp of which a number are joined to form a plate for printing a whole sheet of stamps at once.” It’s come, not surprisingly, to mean a phrase, expression, image, theme, or plot whose power has been diminished by overuse.

But as Hosseini’s narrator reminds us, the phrase must have started off useful. Would have been overused otherwise?

Many clichés are phrases that have fallen into ruts. Several words fuse into one: we hear “liketheplague,” not “like the plague,” and how many of us have firsthand experience with plagues anyway? When phrases come adrift from their original, literal meanings, spelling errors frequently result. If you remember that the “rein” in “free rein” is attached to a horse’s bridle, you won’t write of giving “free reign” to your creativity. Likewise the “bridle” in “unbridled passion” — though “unbridaled passion” might come in handy if you know what you’re doing.

And no, you don’t have to have to have firsthand experience with horses to understand where these phrases come from. My experience with elephants is negligible, and I’ve never seen one in a living room, but could I imagine the elephant as representing a huge hulking entity that no one knows how to deal with? Yeah. No problem.

Related to clichés and ruts are what I call “envelope words.” In order to discuss complex situations, concepts, and ideas, we generalize. We have to. Discussions would bog down pretty quickly if we had to describe each concept in detail every time we introduced it. But generalizations quickly become envelopes, and envelopes are opaque: we can’t see what’s in them, and the complexity of all the myriad pieces within is easily forgotten. We mistake the word or words written on the outside of the envelope for the envelope’s contents.

Here’s where knowing your audience(s) becomes important. If your intended audience can be expected to know what’s in the envelope, you don’t have to explain in detail what a given word or concept means. But the more diverse your intended audience — by sex, race, class, generation, culture, religion, place of residence, or any other factor — the less you can take for granted.

Which brings me around to the novel I quoted from at the beginning of this post. Most of The Kite Runner takes place in Afghanistan. When scenes take place in Pakistan or California, Afghanistan is never far away. Thanks to its tragic and bloody recent history, Afghanistan is much in the news. Many of us have stuffed all the visual images and stories into an envelope and labeled it “Afghanistan.”

But as with most news coverage, those stories and images are heavy on war and politics. When war comes to The Kite Runner, readers have already been introduced to life on the ground, to an array of vividly evoked characters and the messy complexities of their intertwined lives. The “Afghanistan” envelope starts to bulge in the middle and maybe split at the seams.

Good writing can do that. It can show readers overused words and concepts in different lights, from different angles. It can reveal the gaps in what we thought we knew. Often it deepens our understanding of the general by focusing on the particular.

 

What’s The Most Important Lesson You’ve Learned: Words of Wisdom From Our Readers

An array of excellent advice here from readers of the Self-Published Authors Helping Other Authors blog.

Self-Published Authors Helping Other Authors

About two weeks ago, Ruth and I asked you to send in your best advice on writing, editing, publishing, and marketing fiction. I am very pleased to say that nearly every day since my inbox has had wonderful messages from our many readers who were glad to send along their knowledge. Below you can see their comments, as well as wonderful pictures of them and their books. On behalf of the folks here at Self-Published Authors Helping Other Authors, we would like to thank you for your awesome contributions.

Here’s what our readers had to say:

AMZDEBBYCONRAD8 (1)

Write the story you want to write.  Be passionate, follow your heart, and ignore what others are writing.  Just be you.

Debbie Conrad

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Spell check. Spell check, spell check, spell check. After every draft, spell check. After every writing session, spell check. There are going to be things you missed, even if you think you haven’t…

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Back Again

Just got back to writing after a couple of weeks of very intensive editing — plus there was all that snow on the ground . . . Blogging is next.

Meanwhile — got a question about editing or writing? Use the handy-dandy form below to send it in, or click the Got a Question? link on the menu bar above. My head is crammed with word stuff, but your questions lure the useful bits out into the open.