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November 11, 2020

            The last time I addressed this issue specifically was way back in 2012 in my article, Are You Writing A Story Or A Dictionary? I’ve addressed it since then, indirectly, in articles about the writing getting in the way of the story. I thought it worth addressing again, specifically, since it was brought up on one of the Facebook forums just last week.


            I’d originally participated 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’d mentioned here in an earlier article.

            Here’s my quote from the forum: Simpler is better. It’s best to use word economy and keep it at a sixth-grade level 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 responded 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 too.


            Jumping forward to the present, the Facebook forum had about a fifty-fifty mix of responses this time. Many went for simpler is better, if at all possible, while some said it’s up to the writer to write what he feels, and it’s up to the reader to educate themselves up to the level of the writer (or thereabouts).

            How have I changed in that? Let’s look at this from a logical standpoint.

            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 online to find out what it means? Does the term, jerk you right out of the story mean anything? It certainly does to me, and that hasn’t changed since day one.

            Look at me today, with two master’s degrees under my belt. I’m not exactly a walking dictionary but I have a fairly good grasp of English, my native language. Then again, I still don’t know a good many high-falutin’ and obscure words. Some I can imply from the context of the narrative or dialogue. Some, I don’t have a clue. So, what do I do now? If the word doesn’t jerk me out of the story, I just skip it. I don’t keep a dictionary on the table next to my chair. So, it’s not only my loss, but the author’s loss as well.

            When I was twelve, I didn’t have the greatest command of the English language. If 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 (like I do now), or I just ignored it. I figure that’s what most readers today are going to do if I start throwing in a bunch of fancy words in my writing.

            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. Besides, 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’s 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 or less 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? There was a guy I worked with at the AGE Shop in Spain back in the 80’s. He was a walking dictionary. Half the people in the shop couldn’t understand him, and I was among them. On the other hand, I’d 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!

            Once again, I’d like to make this as plain as possible:

            Your job is to entertain your reader, not force education on them. It’s great to provoke thought, but much better through subtle philosophy and ideas woven into the narrative and plot, not complicated words that put up a barrier to the prose. Therefore…


            Happy writing!

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