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ARE YOU WRITING A STORY OR A DICTIONARY?

May 23, 2012

            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!

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10 Comments leave one →
  1. felixcatblues permalink
    May 23, 2012 2:31 am

    The usual good lesson, Fred. I’ve made comments a couple of time with your other blogs but my password does not seem to work and other problems also evolved.

    I’ve had to make the decision whether to dumb down some of my words and used common sense. I used bigger words for my own satisfaction but also toned it down at other times.

    I’m playing the trombone again and getting pretty good. I have a job with Mario in a few weeks and hope I’m up to it. He thinks so.

    Felix

    • May 24, 2012 2:00 am

      Felix,

      So glad to hear you are playing again. If Mario thinks you are good enough, you are! Do it and enjoy yourself!

      I loved your book and your words were not above my head. Your children’s stories were just right too. Baby enjoyed them. You have nothing to worry about in that regard, though I fully understand the temptation!

  2. Charles Fuller permalink
    May 23, 2012 2:51 am

    Hi Fred!
    Heck, I have to be careful about overkill vocabulary all the time. It’s a matter of environment, and social context.
    Proclaiming that I’m going to “bifurcate” something is acceptable eating dinner with fellow Science Fiction fans, but just gets you perplexed looks in other contexts.

    • May 24, 2012 2:02 am

      Charles,

      Thanks for the feedback! You are right. You have to know your audience and adjust accordingly. You also have to keep in mind those you might want to draw in for wider appeal. Rock on!

  3. felixcatblues permalink
    May 24, 2012 2:19 am

    Testing

  4. felixcatblues permalink
    May 24, 2012 2:23 am

    I won’t use the word “bifurcate” to keep this message simple. I’m sure you’d have trouble deciphering the word.

    I’ve already reviewed the blog once and lost it. My mind can only offer up one review of each blog so I’ll wait until you write another.

    Back to practice. I let nothing get in my way, especially a second review.

    Take care,

    Felix

  5. May 25, 2012 6:48 pm

    I find that I tolerate big words less when they are jargon-y. For instance,I read one book this year where the author used too many business law terms and another where there were too many geology terms. The book I’m currently reading has a few big words sprinkled in, but they can be inferred from context (or I can long click on my kindle fire and the definition pops up 🙂 ).

    • May 26, 2012 1:31 am

      Jordan,

      I agree! Using jargon should only occur if each word is explained for the uninitiated reader. If it’s a legal thriller and the reader isn’t a lawyer, why lose potential non-lawyers by talking above their heads with jargon they couldn’t understand without years of college? Same for a book on archaeology? Any subject? You can sprinkle in a term here and there, but define it and move on! The important thing is the story, not the frills!

      Thanks for confirming my point! You rock!

      Fred

      • May 26, 2012 2:33 am

        I made the decision that two or three words be slightly above their reading level in each of my children’s published books and ebooks. As an author you want children to enjoy the book, but at the same time I felt they should learn something new. That’s the purpose of reading. I didn’t take this decision lightly and was very careful the words I selected–no easy task. I made sure the parents or teacher would have no trouble explaining them.

      • May 26, 2012 3:27 pm

        Felix,

        That is a great thing to do for a kid’s book to teach them new words. Not the same thing with adult or even young adult books where you can try to dazzle them with words and terms that will jerk them right out of the story. What you did was just fine.

        Thanks for bringing that up!

        Fred

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