A Rather Furious Rant.

Being too mean and/or poor to buy new books, I went over to Amazon’s kindle store yesterday and downloaded a large variety of free fantasy and mystery novels. All of these appeared to be book one of a series, which made a lot of marketing sense. The risk of liking a free book so much that I have to buy the rest of the series is a risk I’m more than prepared to take.

At any rate, I settled down with a book with a gorgeous cover – some sort of fantasy – and was forcibly reminded of one of the very few stylistic quirks that makes me want to sharpen my nib and convert my pen into a sword.

Dire Wolf

Starving, dropping with exhaustion and about to die of exposure, the heroine found herself in a “rather dire” situation. This was the point at which I deleted the book in despair. This wasn’t the first time such a namby pamby, uncommitted, lazy construction had been used, it was just the point at which I couldn’t take any more.

I fully admit that I’ve been guilty of this one myself. I hate it so much because it’s one of my own old mistakes. It seems to be a typical mistake of beginner writers in fact, and now I’ve mentioned how much I hate it, I should probably explain why.

You see, ‘rather’, like ‘slightly’, and ‘quite’ and my personal failing ‘a little’, are qualifiers. Their purpose is to take away the impact of the word you put them with – to make them mean less than they would mean alone. A ‘rather’ dire situation is nowhere near as dire as a dire situation, because that ‘rather’ dilutes the impact of the word.

Now this may be what the writer wanted to do in the first place. It’s possible he meant to convey the fact that the situation was not properly dire at all. If so, it works, in its way. But a better way would be to find a single word that can convey the correct level of direness without mealy-mouthed equivocation. To just slap a ‘rather’ in there is lazy and half-arsed.

So, the situation is not really dire? Perhaps then it’s ‘perilous’? Or is it only ‘threatening’? Or is it even less bad – ‘worrying’ maybe? There are perfectly good words for a range of levels of threat somewhere less than dire. It’s stronger, more efficient, more meticulous to use one of those instead.

But if the writer really meant that the situation was a dire one – honest-to-goodness, it really is. Seriously, brace yourself, she may not survive – then the writer should have the courage of their conviction and actually say so. Something which is rather dire is not more dire than something which is simply dire. Dire needs no stinking qualifier. Dire is cool enough to ride alone, with a four megatonne nuke under one arm and a grimoire entitled “Five easy spells to end the universe,” under the other.

And to be frank few other words need it either. I don’t believe in bad words, so there must be occasions when I’d rather have a rather than not. But on most occasions it’s better to write with certainty, rather (heh) than writing as though you can never quite commit to what you’re saying. And that means picking a good word and letting it speak for itself.

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11 years ago

Brilliant, needs no qualifier either. This piece is brilliant.

CJ Baty
CJ Baty
11 years ago

What wonderful advise for a new author. I will remember this. Thank you.

Lesley Arrowsmith
11 years ago

When I read through the completed manuscript of my first attempt at a novel, I winced at the number of times I used the word “slightly”. I took them all out. That made it slightly better.

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