Big Words: Should Writers Use Them?

On WritingMany 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.

30 DaysReaders, what do you think? Do you like learning new words? Or would you rather writers didn’t try to expand your vocabulary?

Writers, what are your feelings about words? Do your readers like being challenged when reading?



Big Words: Should Writers Use Them? — 18 Comments

  1. I’m not a fan of “big words” but I am a fan of words normally ignored. Readers know the words, they just don’t use them in daily speech. Also, I love colorful words or words used in unusual ways. I once said an old cowhand “tumbleweeded into town.” I don’t care if it’s not in spell check. You can visualized exactly what I’m saying.

      • From the 1st mystery story I ever wrote:
        “I consoled myself that my servitude took place at toniest eatery in Fresno.”

        Another writer might put it this way: “I told myself that at least I was a waitress at a good restaurant.” Pretty bland.

        • I love toniest—I think I’ve used it. Probably not servitude. But you’re right, readers would understand.

  2. I think it depends on the type of book you’re writing. I don’t use too many big words because my books are light reading with a little humor. However, the right character could probably overdo it and get away with it. The era of the book makes a difference, too. Just a couple of thoughts. Personally, when reading I don’t like to have to pull out the dictionary.

    • Marja, The author probably overdid the big words in the book I referred to in my post. You’re right in keeping things light for the light stories. I think the part about educating young readers and leaving adults be is my favorite piece of advice. But it all depends, doesn’t it?

  3. I was pleased to read that I’m not the only one who had to look up words in the Nancy Drew books when I was a kid! I agree with both Marja, who says word choice depends on the book, and Sunny, who likes words that aren’t often used or that create a visual. It’s hard when the author uses bigger words in everyday conversation and doesn’t realize those words aren’t the way their readers might talk. That’s why beta readers are so important! I keep a running list of words I especially love or words I know I want to use in a story sometime.

    • Amy, I keep a list of words and expressions.

      Yes, it seems surprising that Nancy Drew was quite challenging.

  4. I think going with the flow and style of the story, and characters, is critical. Big words can be really pull a reader out of a tense scene but if there is a period where you can be very selective, then I’d go for it.

    • There’s no one answer when it comes to writing, is there? That’s what makes it such a creative process.

  5. I had this discussion with a good friend, a retired sheriff’s investigator who Beta read my first Safe Harbor Medical Mystery (The Case of the Questionable Quadruplet). My compromise is to tone down fancy words that might not be really necessary and to make sure I’ve made the others clear in context. The same applies to specialized terms and holidays. It never occurred to me someone might not know what Passover was. Actually, looking it up and explaining it briefly was kind of rewarding.

    • Jacqueline, context is really important. I also think the way we put words together matters more than individual words.

      It’s surprising the things people know—and what they don’t!

  6. If you have to look it up. put it down. As a songwriter, it is the idea that you’re propagating (oops) that counts, will the listener understand what you’re trying to say? Don’t risk alienation.

  7. My granddad had terrible table manners. My parents were finicky about mine, but when I was 10, visiting my grandparents, I felt bad about eating carefully when I was at the table with Granddad, so I slouched over my plate and emulated his manners. He said, “Stop that.” He said using poor manners when I ate with him was insulting, like talking down to him. He told me firmly that I was not to do either one, that it offended him for someone like me, with better grammar and manners to try to copy his language or manners. He said a smart girl like me could hurt the feelings of a lot of people by doing that.

    I believe it’s the same with writing. If you have studied and have developed into a wordsmith, it’s a mistake to “write down” to readers. It offends. A writer should write the way s/he speaks.

    • Sharon, thank you for sharing the valuable lesson your grandad taught you. Context is key. If the reader can understand a word in context, I don’t think he or she will have a problem and will appreciate the writer’s show of respect. And the way an writer puts words together is more important than any single word. This is where beta readers are so important.

  8. I try to learn a new word every day. I am concerned about the dumbing down of our youth.

    • You’re right to be concerned. That’s why I appreciate the comment I quoted about enhancing vocabulary for oyung readers. Most of my readers are older, but I personally think we all could benefit.