Accurate Naming

Cover of "Word Painting: A Guide to Write...

Cover via Amazon

In discussing Mr. Bondurant’s reply to my posting on researching with my father, I was reminded of a passage from the book Word Painting: A Guide to Writing More Descriptively by Rebecca McClanahan.

Below is a part of her book on why, as a writer, you need to name things correctly.





“Accurate Naming

The first test of naming is accuracy.  Part of a writer’s job is to learn the exact names of things and to have more than a passing acquaintance with them.  When we read an essay by Richard Selzer, we trust he is naming the surgical instruments correctly.  In the same way, we trust Annie Dillard to know the difference between a beetle and a scorpion, and to describe their exoskeletons precisely.  And when poet Mary Oliver writes “long-billed curlew,” we must be assured she does not mean “great horned owl.”  Though the reader may not know the exact name for everything in a piece of writing, he nevertheless expects the writer to know.

Every world has its own vocabulary, even those worlds that might seem simple or mundane, and precise naming takes us deeper into the world being described.  You probably cannot write a convincing story about a beauty salon, for instance, without knowing the difference between a tint and a dye, or between a set-and-style and a permanent wave.  It might also help to know how long each procedure takes, and how much it costs.  If you’re writing a story from the point of view of a high school biology teacher, you may need to know not only what your students are wearing but also how to properly prepare a slide and dissect a fetal pig, and how to fill out a midterm grade report.

Finding out the names of things, their histories and how they work often requires outside research.  This applies to the writing of fiction and poetry as well as to nonfiction writing.  In the midst of revising a short story about a girl who helps deliver a calf, I realized I knew almost nothing about the subject.  I spent the next two days in the library, and the following day at a local farm interviewing a farmer.  The best way to learn would have been to deliver a calf with my own hands, but it was winter and I had a deadline.

Before I sent the final version to my editor, I asked the farmer to read the description of the delivery.  Other than an error in my use of the term freemartin, which I set about to correct, my description met the farmer’s standards.   “Yes ma’am,”  he said, “that’s just how it is, you got it right.  That’s exactly how a calf is born, cord and all.”  (A freemartin, for those of you who are wondering, is the female twin of a bull calf.  I’ve been waiting three sentences to tell you.  Aristotle was right.  What a jot to find “the proper and special name of a thing.”)

I think that sums it up pretty nicely.  Readers trust that a writer knows what they are talking about.  If you can’t trust one thing, then how can you trust them to get all their other facts correct?

I have first hand knowledge of slaughtering pigs, which I will post about next.  I was there, and it happened.  It wasn’t a story that was relayed to me.  Mr. Bondurant’s book  is a novel based on a true story that is about his grandfather and grand uncles.  Now, yes, I’m sure it is possible that Mr. Bondurant was told a story about slaughtering pigs, but if he didn’t have first hand experience with this situation, then his story is anecdotal and hearsay.  My experience is first hand. 

 Writing on



2 thoughts on “Accurate Naming

  1. A simpler way to describe this is…be a reporter. I’ve been a journalist for 30 years and would never write without doing the research, whether firsthand or by interviews with people who know these subjects well. I prefer, whenever possible, to see the thing up close myself, to hear and smell all the details. How else can you possibly convey them to your readers?

    My goal is to make readers feel they are sitting beside me, no matter how unlikely the setting.

    LOVE now knowing “freemartin.” How to work that into casual conversation?

    • Exactly. And you being a journalist would know all about being a reporter. Seeing things upclose and personal brings it home, and many times the experience is what makes you remember the situation. And how you see it, will make an impact on your readers, because of how you describe it in the end.

      I love your statement “My goal is to make readers feel they are sitting beside me, no matter how unlikely the setting.” I’m forever trying to capture something exactly how I see it so that if someone reads what I’ve written, it’s like they are looking through my eyes.

      I agree, how to insert “freemartin” into a conversation. I had know clue what the word was until I read it either.

      Thank you so very much for your kind words and comments. I appreciate them.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s