There's a Word for Everything
By Evan Braun
There’s a common expression that goes like this: “You don’t know what you don’t know.” I’ve found that this is a really important concept for everyone to grasp in the general course of life, so certainly this doesn’t apply specifically to writing.
But also, actually, yes it does.
Before I get to my point today, I want to go back in time about ten years to the summer when I was busily finishing up the first draft of the book that would eventually become my second published novel, The City of Darkness.
In a scene late in the book, a group of characters lands in Islamabad, Pakistan and steps out of the airport. Clearly I had never been to Pakistan, nowhere even near to it, and I still haven’t. So, to compensate, I did as much research as I could. I studied pictures, read some articles, and even sought out someone who had been there to help insert a little bit of authentic flavour to the scene.
These efforts all paid off, and without a doubt that part of the book is much stronger than if I had just made up some details from my own imagination. You can never do too much research.
At the time, I was quite satisfied with the final result. And after the book came out, nobody commented specifically on the scene in question—which, for a writer, can generally be taken as confirmation that you’ve done your job well enough.
But a few years later, I had occasion to re-read the first few pages of this chapter. With the benefit of some new knowledge and a bit of hindsight, I noticed something rather embarrassing.
Here’s the passage:
And yet here they were, a long day and a half later, speeding down Islamabad’s main expressway, their jeep’s climate control laboring against the oppressive midday heat as the four spires of the Faisal Mosque loomed on the horizon.
“What’s wrong with that?” you may be asking. “Looks fine to me.”
As it did with me when I first wrote it. Admittedly, there’s nothing offensively bad about this piece of writing. And look—there’s a bit of my research poking through, since obviously I looked into the matter well enough to identify the specific landmark: Faisal Mosque. Well done.
But here’s the thing: anyone who knows anything about Islam, or that part of the world more generally, knows that the “four spires” around a mosque have a very specific name. They’re called minarets.
Which I had no idea about at the time, and I didn’t know that I didn’t know there wasn’t a word for that, so I just described what I saw in the pictures I found online.
To someone who knows what a minaret is, though, this paragraph is pretty embarrassing. To put it in terms readers in North America might better understand, this is like going to great lengths to describe the steeple atop a church without knowing enough to actually call it a steeple.
There are probably many cases like this throughout my writing, published or otherwise, where I described things that otherwise have perfectly serviceable names. That’s because there’s a word for everything. Everything.
But I’ll never learn them all, and that’s fine. There’s just too many, and the human brain only has so much capacity.
It’s okay not to know things. Nonetheless, use my personal story as a cautionary tale. Next time you’re conducting some research for your next book, try to take some time every once in a while to try identifying the things you may be missing. It’s possible that if I had stopped long enough, it might have occurred to me to look up the word for those “four spires.”
So keep in mind that there are, indeed, words for everything. And if you come across something in your writing that doesn’t seem to have a corresponding word, you’d be well off to assume that you simply haven’t learned that word yet. Then learn it. Your future self will thank you.
About this Contributor:
Evan Braun is a full-time author and editor. He has authored three novels, the first of which, The Book of Creation, was shortlisted in two categories at the 2012 Word Awards. He has released two sequels, The City of Darkness (2013) and The Law of Radiance (2015), completing the series. Braun is an experienced professional editor, and has worked with Word Alive Press authors since 2006. He is also a regular contributor at The Fictorians, a popular writing blog.