Many years ago I read a mystery by a popular author that contained so many words I didn’t know that I had to keep my dictionary close at hand. I enjoy learning new words so I liked the experience. But when I mentioned it to a couple of friends, they said, “Not me. I’d have put that book down, and fast. I want to read words I already know.”
I’ve always had a love for words. I fondly remember vocabulary lists in high school: perspicacious, truculent, vapid, loquacious, polemic, specious, logy. With all those big words swirling through my brain, you’d think my SAT scores would have been more impressive than they were.
When I presented my manuscript for Murder at the Book Group to a long ago critique group they strongly advised me to ditch the big words. “What big words?” I asked, bewildered. They named a few but the only one I remember is “diatribe.” I didn’t think diatribe was a big word and would surely be understood in context, as in “Arthur ignored his mother and carried on with his diatribe against Evan.” Despite my middling SAT scores, I guess those high school words lodged themselves in the part of my brain that retains words.
The upshot was that I kept diatribe and changed the other big words.
I found a Yahoo forum that addressed the question, “Is using big words in a story a good idea?” There were many responses but this one best summarizes them:
Don’t use big words (and don’t refrain from using them) just because of some vague notion you have in your head about what’s a ‘good idea’. Use the right word for the context, whether it’s big or small. Consider things like the rhythm and flow of the words, the ‘voice’ of the character/narrator and the setting of your story, and choose your words accordingly to create a pleasing and logical arrangement.
As long as you’re using words whose meaning and connotations you fully understand (ie: not just words you’ve looked up in a thesaurus and think sound cool or sophisticated), you can assume your readers will understand them (or be able to work out their meaning in context) as well.
Here’s the most interesting and, I think wisest, advice:
If the story is for kids, use more big words. If it’s for adults, use less. It’s a little backwards there, but here’s my logic: you want to expand the kids’ vocabulary a little, but not annoy them, so use them a little more. You don’t know if adults know that word or not, but you want them to keep reading, so use them a little less.
A word I recall from reading Nancy Drew was “elated,” as in “Nancy was elated by the news.” The context wasn’t clear to me, so I ran to the dictionary and learned that Nancy was ecstatically happy by the news. Elated is a wonderful word to teach a ten-year-old.
One of my favorite books on writing is On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft by Stephen King. In the book, King says, “Wherever your vocabulary is at today is fine. There’s no need to learn more words or different words. Whatever words you know right now, you use. This will help you develop your voice and sound unique.”
Readers have a wide range of word knowledge but even those with an impressive vocabulary feel that showing it off is pretentious. So, my advice to writers: use your best judgment. And ask your beta readers for feedback.
In the meantime, I’ll continue to enjoy words and will hang on to my precious dog-eared copy of 30 Days to a More Powerful Vocabulary by Dr. Wilfred Funk and Norman Lewis.
Writers, what are your feelings about words? Do your readers like being challenged when reading?
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