A writer I work with on Arizona Wildlife Views magazine recently recalled a long-ago editing horror story, one that provides a fine example of the importance of choosing the right words for wildlife.
Bruce had drafted an article on watching desert bighorns. By the time his editor was finished, she had made more than 300 alterations in a 1,200-word story. Bruce never saw the final version before it went to print. When he did, he was horrified to see how she had changed his description of a newborn lamb working its way down a cliff face to a ledge by the river to drink. She had replaced the word “lamb” with “baby.”
Bruce said, “That would probably seem trivial to many, but I had major problems with it.” I’m not one of those who would find this change trivial. As a person whose profession is finding words for wildlife, I immediately grasped what was wrong with the change this unthinking editor had made.
First of all, good writers prefer more specific terms over more general ones. Writing coaches will circle a word like “tree” and ask the writer what kind. Details bring a scene to life. After all, if I write “tree,” you might imagine anything from a towering Sequoia to Charlie Brown’s spindly Christmas tree. If I want you to see the ponderosa pines outside my window, I’d better use their proper name.
In terms of Bruce’s lamb, the editor violated a rule not just of good writing, but of good wildlife writing. “Lamb” is the right term for young offspring of bighorns (Ovis canadensis). These are members of the Bovidae family, which includes goats and cattle as well as sheep. Replacing “lamb” with “baby” not only changed a specific term to a general one, it reduced the story’s accuracy, and thus Bruce’s reputation with the reader.
Also, the change altered the reader’s experience of Bruce’s story. The word “baby” carries shades of meaning, everything from “cute” to “creature that spits up on your shoulder,” depending on the reader’s particular (and, to the writer, unknowable) experience with human babies. The thoughts and emotions you might have reading about a baby descending a sheer cliff are different from those you would experience as a bighorn lamb performs the same feat.
The editor was wrong to make the change — especially without consulting the writer. And Bruce is right to care, even after all these years. When we choose the wrong words for wildlife, we give the reader a far different experience than the one we intended.