Bye Bye, Big Words

I haven’t had a chance to mention this here yet, but I received my very first piece of fan mail last weekend. An extremely nice guy took the time to write me an email after finishing PWNED, letting me know what he thought of it.

You guys. He liked it. He thought I pulled it off. He was a little skeptical when he first started reading it, but he said he enjoyed reading it overall and is glad he bought it!

Do you have any idea how mind-blowingly amazing that is? SO mind-blowingly amazing.

One helpful bit of feedback he gave me is to take a very hard look at the big words I use in my writing, and ask myself how many people will really know what those pieces of vocab mean. He mentioned the word “atavistic” in particular, and after revisiting it I see his point.

This is not the first time someone has noticed this. I wield a formidable vocabulary and sometimes have a skewed perspective on what constitutes a “big word.”

At first I rebelled against the notion that I should use smaller words in order to write at a level the general public is comfortable with. Stephen King uses big words! I’m reading a book right now (Cryptonomicon, in case you’re curious) that is chock full of big words! Successful authors use big words and no one yells at them for it!

Then something my first-piece-of-fan-mail-writer said caught my eye. To paraphrase, my writing is easy to read and hums right along until a big word drops out of nowhere and cracks the reader’s windshield.

If I take an honest look at my writing, I have to agree with the guy. My writing style was born on my blog. If the big words I use on occasion are distracting and annoying to my readers, then it’s safe to say my writing isn’t an appropriate place to let my fun words loose.

This does give me an excuse to ponder the relevance of the juicy words that are big on nuance and short on fans. Do you think they’ll get phased out and become obsolete someday? If no one’s learning them anymore and fewer and fewer people are using them, how long do you think it’ll take before words like “atavistic” and “pusillanimous” are, for all intents and purposes, extinct? Gone the way of thee’s and thou’s, and used only when irony or a bit of cheap authenticity are called for.

7 thoughts on “Bye Bye, Big Words

  1. Erika,

    As soon as I type that, I want to speak German… Aside from that, it is always an interesting conversation when you talk about style. The thing with style is, is that it’s subjective (That’s right, I have a reduplicated copula in the dependent clause – for good reason! And this parenthetical comment even happens *before* punctuation!).

    There is a fine to be tread, I suppose, if you attempt to appeal to the masses. For some of us, our natural writing style is a more archaic, dense and verbose (dare I say sesquipedalian?) phrasing. And that’s perfectly fine. But the mass market world *is* accustomed to simple, short, clippy sentences. Active voice, not passive, and keep that verb towards the fore, not the aft! Oh, and limit your adverbs and adjectives. Don’t use fancy verbs to delineate speech and thought, just use adverbs to signal the difference in mood.

    There’s a time and a place for all styles, I say. I’ll fight against the simplistic, contemporary writing style that has enthralled the masses for barely 40 years. Will those “fancy” words ever disappear? Not entirely likely, or at least for a long time. Linguistically, there is an argument for contemporary literature having already dispensed with such “elitist” verbiage.

    In short (read: skip the above): your style is your style. Certainly, be mindful of the audience you write for when you’re editing, but be authentic to your natural style. If you pepper your sentences in vocabulary you aren’t comfy with, it’ll show; it feels awkward, like a bad metaphor I don’t feel motivated enough to write.

    Granted, I haven’t yet had the distinct pleasure of reading “Pwned”, but rest assured: comments will be had.

    This post brought to you by….the “Dynamic Duo”: Semicolon and Colon!

  2. If I hadn’t been, and continue to be, challenged by the books I read, I wouldn’t have the vocabulary I do today. There are many words I mispronounced for a long time because I had only ever seen them in writing. Reading is supposed to expand your mind, and an author shouldn’t dumb their work down for the masses. However, one should not mistake a good vocabulary for good writing.

    Style should never interfere with the story and consistency is king. A big or uncommon word or one a reader doesn’t know doesn’t have to be jarring. It’s only incongruous if it doesn’t fit in the established tone and context. Many common words China Mievelle uses that help establish his voice and the tone of his stories would rip a reader out of a Harry Potter novel so violently that they wouldn’t be able to find their way back in.

    It’s all about what you’re writing. A time and a place for everything. One story may benefit from the use of a deliberately expansive lexicon, while another may suffer.

  3. -J.R. Omahen, Sesquipedalian! Ha! That was a new one for me, but I do love looking up new words :) As regards style, I don’t think my writing style is suited to the full width and breadth of my vocabulary, unfortunately. I write beach reads, methinks, and dictionaries are ill-suited to the beach.

    -dc, ME TOO ME TOO! I read so much when I was younger that for the longest time I mispronounced almost every ambitious word I peppered my speech with because I’d only ever seen it written. Anyway, I think you’re absolutely right. Consistency is king, and more than one person has said to me that the occasional big word really throws them for a loop because the rest of my writing is so easy to read.

  4. In my family, you always have either a pencil, a dictionary, or a family member around to ask for the big words! My mother is queen of making sure she underlines words she is unsure of to go back and look it up later, if by chance she doesn’t know the word. I think it’s important to take your readership into account…. if you’re writing beach novels, it’s true, dictionaries aren’t a good accessory. BUT! Marvel at the world and their smart, not dumb, phones! Almost every phone in the world allows our fellow denizens of the beach or bus to find whatever they need!

    I say, carry on, big words! Our world is a better place because we challenge ourselves and those around us. Otherwise, we would not be the evolving species that we are!

  5. -Genay, You’re a delightful person, you know that? It is true, though. Smart phones handle dictionary duty admirably, so there’s really no excuse for not looking up a word you don’t know.

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