Thursday, September 2, 2010

Research and the right word

Last night we were watching television, and the host of the show used the wrong word. It has been bugging me ever since. I'm not going to mention what the show was, because I'm not a television critic, and I have no idea whether the host or a producer or a writer chose this word, and all of that is beside the point anyway. If you figure out what the show was, good for you!

My husband and I went to high school in Syracuse, and he is a graduate of Syracuse University. We know the area.

Syracuse sits on the edge of Onondaga Lake. This is what Wikipedia has to say about Onondaga Lake:

Today, Onondaga Lake is a severely polluted lake. Onondaga Lake has been described as one of the most polluted lakes in the United States, primarily due to industrial dumping and sewage contamination.

I know Wikipedia isn't the most reliable source for information, and you shouldn't use it as a primary reference. But pretty much anyone who has lived in Syracuse in the past half century would agree Onondaga Lake isn't their first choice for a place to swim.

During the opening shots of the show, a photo of the lake flashed on the screen, while the host described Syracuse as "known for its...pristine lakes." Wrong. Word. Choice.

There are other lakes in the Syracuse area which may be more accurately described as pristine. Skaneateles Lake and Green Lake come to mind. But no Syracuse resident would ever use that word to describe Onondaga Lake. Even given the massive efforts to clean up the lake, once spoiled, it will never be pristine.

This underscores for me the importance of good research and good word choices. If you have a setting you're not familiar with, it is important to get the details right. Get a local to check your work. If you're writing about a sport you don't play, a profession you're not in, or a place you've never visited, make sure the people who know the ins and outs aren't going to immediately see that you don't. You don't have to be an expert, but you have to look like one.

And as for the word choice, I might have gone with "picturesque." Pollution aside, there's a nice park, and it's still pretty to look at.

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