ARE YOU WRITING A STORY OR A DICTIONARY?
I was recently participating in a discussion on the Absolute Write Water Cooler in the Horror Forum. A participant asked if he should use a certain word to describe a gory scene involving a victim being stabbed in the eye. The word he picked was a medical term that I’d never heard of. He asked the forum if he should use that word or pick something simpler. There were several responses asking what the word meant. I gave him my philosophy, which I’ve mentioned here in a past article.
Here is my quote from the forum: Simpler is better. Word economy and keep it at a sixth-grade level if whenever possible. Don’t try to impress your reader with big words unless you define those words. That means extra narrative that usually slows things down, unless it’s a key plot point.
Whoa… hold the fort! The board suddenly came alive. Several responses came along saying that the writer shouldn’t dumb down the story for the reader. Okay, I can understand that. One responder qualified that you shouldn’t throw the dictionary at the reader, but it’s okay to throw in new words and not explain them so that the reader has to go look them up. He said he appreciated it when he had to look them up, so he figures others will to.
How many of you would appreciate stumbling across a word where you have no idea of the meaning? Will you stop reading and go pick up a dictionary, ask someone, or go on line to find out what it means? Does the term, jerk you right out of the story mean anything?
When I was twelve, I didn’t have the greatest command of the English language. I still don’t, but it’s a heck of a lot better now. When I read the Hardy Boys or Nancy Drew or Edgar Rice Burroughs, did I go to a dictionary to look up the words I didn’t know? Not a chance. Did I ask someone? Maybe once or twice. I either guessed the meaning by how the paragraph was written, or I just glided over it and ignored it. I figure that’s what most readers today are going to do if I start throwing in a bunch of fancy words.
I like to use the occasional fancy word. However, it’s usually a technical term key to the story. I always explain it either through the narrative or dialogue. If I do throw in something wonky, my writer’s group will be sure to call me on it!
As a reader, even now, when I read someone like Dean Koontz (I’m a big fan when he writes third person), who likes to throw in the occasional freaky non-technical word without explanation, I’m not about to go running to the dictionary to figure it out. If the narrative or dialogue doesn’t explain it, I just blow it off. I don’t care that much. It is most likely a word I’ll never use in real life or in my own writing, so who cares? Using it doesn’t make me any more sophisticated or make my two Master’s Degrees any more valuable, so I just move on.
Sure, it would be nice to expand my vocabulary but once I do, who am I going to use it on? I would love to learn Cockney slang, for a hoot, but who would I use that on?
As a writer, please consider your audience. This is especially critical to young adult, but it applies to even the older crowd. If you’re shooting for the highbrow intellectual bunch, maybe you can dazzle them with ten dollar words, but if you’re appealing to a wider audience, KISS!
If I have to explain that acronym…
No, it’s not the band!
That’s it for now. Happy writing!