Why Authors Should Be Using the BIG Words

I’m a vocabulary nut. I admit it. I love words. Little words, big words, unusual words, archaic words. In high school, I kept a piece of paper in the front of whatever book I was reading, so I could write down unfamiliar words and look them up the next day. Whenever I looked up a word, I underlined it, and these days, if you were to flip through my battered Random House Dictionary, you’d be hard pressed to find a page that didn’t have three or four words underlined.

Not surprisingly, this obsession overflows into my writing. I love being able to share a word that perfectly describes something. I’m ecstatic when a particular word absolutely nails what I’m trying to say. But what happens when an author’s audience isn’t as interested in their vocabulary as the author is in his?

Have Modern Writers Forgotten the Art of the Big Words?

First Five Pages Noah LukemanIt’s a sad fact that modern society is no longer as literate as it once was—and most authors don’t seem to be doing a lot to raise the bar. Literary agent Noah Lukeman, author of the popular The First Five Pages, shares the lamentation:

…extended vocabulary, if properly used, is impressive. It is rare to come across unusual words in manuscripts these days. It is as if all of today’s writers were working from a high school-level vocabulary—and writers who do use unusual words more often than not misuse them.

The arguments against using large and possibly unfamiliar words include the idea that you must match your writing to your readers’ level. If your readers aren’t likely to recognize a word, then its usage will only serve to confuse them and possibly even alienate them.

Plus, there’s always the risk of committing the cardinal sin of drawing the reader’s attention away from the story to the author himself. Some people claim the use of large words is a cheap gimmick that says, in essence, “Look at me! Look how smart I am!”

George OrwellThese arguments certainly aren’t without merit. In his 1946 essay “Politics and the English Language,” British satirist George Orwell outlined a “remedy of six rules” to combat what he considered the “ugly and inaccurate” writing of the day. In the light of the solid advice of Rule #3 that one should “never use a long word where a short will do,” it’s easy to lose sight of the fact that a long, specific word beats the pants off a short, general word any day of the week.

Should You Ever Considering Dumbing Down Your Vocabulary for Your Readers?

What if the long word isn’t necessarily going to be familiar to the reading public? What’s a writer to do? Do we dumb down our writing, simplify it, cut out the beauty and precision of millennia of linguistic evolution—and with every deletion risk the permanent maiming of our language? Or do we stretch ourselves to embrace the endless possibilities lurking in our dictionaries? Award-winning non-fiction author Michael Perry commented that:

If the word is beautiful, unusual, attractive, it sounds cool, it’s got great rhythm—and, by the way, it means exactly what you mean to say—why shouldn’t you use it? Why in this day and age should we be apologizing for keeping these words alive? We’re killin’ ’em. We’re doing away with them as fast as we can…. It’s not about being snobby. It’s about being excited about language.

A book is a contract between writer and reader. The writer bears the responsibility to do his best to make his work legible and precise. But readers also bear a responsibility: to rise to the book’s intellectual challenge. Although books are all too often relegated to the realm of mere entertainment, they are also an endless source of education. And, as such, readers should expect to be lifted above themselves in some way.

As writers, we should strive to lift our readers. But like any good teacher, we must also make sense. We must find the balance between asking a reader to grow and losing him completely. We’re all striving toward that balance. Here’s to reaching it!

Tell me your opinion: How do you determine when to use big words–and when to simplify your vocabulary?

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Why Authors Should Be Using the BIG Words

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About K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland

K.M. Weiland lives in make-believe worlds, talks to imaginary friends, and survives primarily on chocolate truffles and espresso. She is the IPPY and NIEA Award-winning and internationally published author of the Amazon bestsellers Outlining Your Novel and Structuring Your Novel. She writes historical and speculative fiction from her home in western Nebraska and mentors authors on her award-winning website.

Comments

  1. I love to toss in the occasional $.25 word and have a critquer go “what does __________ mean?”

    • I find it funny, but not in a nice way, when people do this. Ask me? Hello, Google! And as KM says in the next post down, yeah, your personal vocabulary is not my standard to which I write. Why would I deny somebody the excitement that I had, for example, when I discovered the oh-so-perfect word stygian to mean perfect dark with an ominous under-current? (thank you Stephen King). What kind of real reader does NOT want to learn new words!?

  2. I’ll never forget the critter who told me I should delete all the words he didn’t know – as if his own vocabulary should have been the litmus test for the rest of the world. I get a kick out of that every time I think about it!

  3. You’ve given me a lot to mull over in your post. I’m not sure that I consciously think about what words I’m using as I write. Mostly what’s inside comes out. If I’ve read deeply and have developed my vocabulary, then it will naturally flow in my story. If the words aren’t already inside me, then I’ll have to force them, and it will probably disrupt the flow of the story.

  4. If the words are there naturally, and they’re just pouring forth, they’re probably exactly the words you want to be writing. When you’re instinctively drawing from the deep well of a broad vocabulary, your subconscious often has a sense of what’s appropriate – sometimes more so than your conscious. It’s when you’re consciously picking thousand-dollar words that you need to stop and consider your intentions.

  5. Quite interesting. I usually try to add one or two words into every piece I write that I know aren’t in general use. It’s a small way of trying to enlighten the public (if they take responsibility for looking them up) and hopefully encourage them to expand their understanding of the language.

  6. Kudos to you. I firmly believe that the only way we’re going to turn around this saddening degeneration of our language is to not only persist in using our vocabularies in our writing, but in also learning to use them to maximum effect.

    • Susi Franco says:

      I agree with you, Katie. It worries me how un-interested many millenials seem about reading, learning, words. As you know, I’ve had my own crisis with ‘writer vocabulary’ r/t one of my Beta Readers saying the vocab “got in the way of the story”. I was initially shocked outta my gourd, then went back and re-read as objectively as possible. I just couldn’t take a scalpel to my work . It was only one Beta reader but he shook me up , saying “If I didn’t know any better I’d think you were showing off “.
      Boy did that ever sting ! 🙁 I questioned having selected him in the first place, of course. My bad.

      The article link you sent me ( also the one posted above) was such great medicine and helped a great deal . It seems I’m always thanking you, Miz Katie, so let me add another one to the pile:

      Thank you so much for the incredible resource you so graciously supply all us struggling authors.

      • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

        You’re very welcome! I’m glad this old post was an encouragement. I do think it’s very important for us to be careful in selecting beta readers. Although we have to be able to accept valid criticism, it’s absolutely true that not everyone’s opinion is equally valuable.

  7. The last conference I went to, a speaker insinuated that since the publishers are producing 6th grade reading level material that we should watch our reading level when we write. It was so hard for me to keep my tongue in. If we willingly only produce literature at a sixth grade reading level we are guilty of the reading public’s lack of reading skills. Where did I get my vocabulary? From reading. I will mourn the day when there are no more contemporarily written books with high end words.

  8. You’ve hit the nail on the head. Someone once told me, in regard to a word he didn’t know, that “no one writes words like those.” To which, of course, I replied, “Well, someone had to. How else would I have learned it?”

    The dumbing down of language is a self-destructive cycle that we cannot allow to continue.

  9. Very well stated, my sweet friend! All too often I have tossed out a word that I was afraid others would not know. I love coming across a word I do not know and then look it up. One function of Word that I love to use, but don’t use enough, is the readibility statistics under Spelling and Grammar. I love to structure a sentence in order to get the highest reading level. Thanks for this, Katie. We are certainly being dumbed down.

  10. Thanks for reminder about the statistics in Word. I remember somebody pointing it out to me a while back, but I’d forgotten all about it. I’ll have to go check it out!

  11. I’ve often said that one perfect big word can take the place of many smaller, dumber words. 😉

  12. great post. i’ve been told my writing was too formal, and part of that was the use of big words or phrases above that 5th-grade level you mentioned. sigh. i love words, though. and long ones don’t intimidate me! 🙂

  13. I appreciate unusual words also although I find myself opting for the more familiar ones as I write. Not that I want to but as you mentioned, most writing today is bereft of any words above a fifth grade level. I will seriously consider resurrecting my old favorites and even adding some new.

    Thanks for the important nudge.

  14. I don’t purposely use big words, but I don’t shy away from them either. I think the advice to use short words maybe meant more for for beginning or young writers, who will use the biggest word their thesaurus provides for every single word.

  15. I’d say it all comes down to style. If you’re consistent with your large or small vocabulary, your readers will follow along. If you’re all over the place, you might lose some for the reasons you mentioned in your post.

    Lynnette Labelle
    http://lynnettelabelle.blogspot.com

  16. @Phy: That’s good. I’ll remember that one!

    @Jeannie: I think it all depends on what style you’re trying to achieve. In some pieces formality is optimal, in others not so much. It’s just a matter of learning to find the right rhythm.

    @Shaddy: You’re very welcome! Here’s to revolutionizing vocabulary!

    @Kate: Nothing wrong with short words. Often, they *are* the best word for the job. But that doesn’t mean they should be used to the exclusion of the big ones.

    @Lynnette: Variety is important – same with words as with sentence structures. Every word in the dictionary – short or long – absolutely has its place.

  17. Wow, what a great post! I am going to start my own list of unfamiliar words. By the way what is that word in the picture?

  18. “Sesquipedalian” means the use of long words. Apropos, don’t you think? 😉

  19. It is interesting how writings are each so different. In high school, I was hard pressed to read a book, let alone carry a dictionary around with highlighed words on it.

    I had a lot of catching up to do as an adult, which is a testament to God’s grace and sense of humor.

    I’m totally with you on this post. Writers are just drawn to the beauty of language — on all levels.

  20. I don’t think anyone should *have* to carry around a dictionary to highlight words in. That’s the part of the beauty of doing a good job of incorporating words in our writing: if we do it well, readers will get a sense of the meaning form the usage itself!

    • Rhonda Pooley says:

      When I read my first Dorothy Dunnett novel there were many words I’d never heard of but I knew from the context roughly what they meant. However, I was so intrigued I had to get up for a dictionary and check every one! And I loved the whole adventure of ‘digging out’ those golden words even when it meant re-reading the paragraph to get back into the flow.

  21. We’ve had this discussion a time or two before, and I can still see both sides of the issue too well to come down in favor of either side.

    It’s lonely up here on the fence.

  22. Balance. Writing is all about balance. Maybe sitting up there on the fence and seeing both sides of the issue, you’re finding that balance.

  23. All I can say is that you’ve inspired me to keep paper, pencil and a dictionary close by when I bury myself in a book! 😀 Thank you and love you!

  24. Oh good. Then my job here is done. 😉 Thanks so much for stopping by!

  25. I think that if the reader doesn’t know a big word in a book it’s his job to find out what it is…As writers and readers we need to not go looking for the easy way out. We need to look in all ways to grow from the occasion.

  26. Totally agree. Too bad more people aren’t of your way of thinking!

  27. I agree. Beautifully written.

  28. Thank you for reading!

  29. When I was little I used to read the dictionary and encyclopedia for fun! Now I’m on http://www.m-w.com quite often.

    • Me too! When I was 13 my English teacher awarded me a prize, which was to choose any book I liked from the local bookshop. I took ages browsing (“only one, Sir?) and eventually decided on a Thesaurus – something I had not known existed before then. It only cost Aus$5 at that time and he thought it was such a modest choice he gave me another one (of his choice) to go with it.

  30. That’s hilarious! I used to do that too!

  31. Dean Koontz was told he would never sell his novels because the words he used were too big. . .’nuff said.

    He made a comment on his website about not insulting the reader’s intelligence and literacy by avoiding big words. I wholeheartedly agree. No matter the size, if a word explains perfectly what you mean and contributes to the flow of the story, use it.

    Geeze, what would HP Lovecraft think of us? 🙁

  32. Great insight about insulting the readers’ intelligence. The problem is, these days, too many readers *ask* to be insulted!

  33. Lorna G. Poston says:

    I’m so used to “dumbing down” my language when I talk to people— especially my parents—that using big words doesn’t come naturally for me. I’m working on it though.:)

  34. I think we all tend to do that to one extent or another. One more regrettable side effect of our culture’s downhill vocabulary slide..

  35. I love you for writing this post. I have refused ever to dumb down my vocabulary or go for a cliche phrase because a reader is more familiar with its rhythm.

    Reading should be part of how we grow. I know it is for me.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Couldn’t agree more. As a reader, I would disappointed were I never to encounter an unfamiliar word.

  36. The debate about using high-sounding vocabulary or every day words will never cease. I remember individuals complain about the high sounding vocabulary used in the works of Nobel Laureate Prof. Wole Soyinka. One of such person is the Elechi Amadi who himself is an accomplished author especially with his book, The Concubine. However, Soyinka himself doesn’t share such view. Infact, he opined that his books are not meant for the roadside mechanic! This underscores the point in your piece that readers should not only focus on the level of simplicity of communication between reader and writer but should also strive to attain to the intellectual height or praxis of the book itself. Although, I take to heart about balance as advised, I am an apostle of high sounding vocabulary because it gives me the kick and sense of satisfaction that I belong to a select class outside ordinariness. Let’s be realistic, it takes effort and time to build diversity of vocabulary and as such one should have the kick whenever one is successful in the use of such.

  37. thomas h cullen says:

    All it can take, is just one word, denoting a look or a feeling or a reaction to a look, and diction then proves the entire cause of difference between emptiness and fulfilment.

    Croyan’s reality, all too easily, could’ve been under-represented; just for lack of a series of pivotal words, and his reality’s sheer finality wouldn’t be known..

  38. M. Jean Gardiner says:

    I use a word-of-the-day app, and often find a word that helps tighten up my writing. I’m a big believer in improving my vocabulary.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Fun! Any good recommendations? I sort of gave up on those after having a hard time finding one that was giving me any new words.

  39. I enjoy reading beautiful prose and poetry. It’s one of the reasons I start reading; it’s one of the reasons I keep reading. I relish the way that words engage all the senses; I love the music they make. Sometimes this engagement demands words and combinations of words not common in every day speech. Fine – I don’t want a common experience! But each story form and genre will demand its own palette and flavour of words. Some of these might be ‘fancy soundin’ book learnin’ words. I think a masterful writer knows the sound of their world, and nails the sense of it consistently throughout their work. Openly demanding that things be ‘dumbed down’ to effect reader engagement is not a literary, but a journalistic requirement.

  40. robert easterbrook says:

    I have mentioned this elsewhere, I was firmly told once that if I used BIG words, like they did in the 1950s, I’d never get published. I was almost ordered to write for an audience with a 30-second attention span – bascially, someone with a high school education. If I wanted to get published and be fashionable, that is. I don’t like fashion.

  41. What’s tragic, is that in writer communities, many writers follow the advice of using simple words religiously, and when they critique other writers’ work, they would come down hard on any writer that dares to not follow the rule. Any writer that uses sophisticated diction will be branded as being pretentious and a “thesaurus thumper,” or writing “purple prose.” It’s such a common knee-jerk reaction that it almost seems like they’ve bullied many aspiring writers into writing at a lower level of diction than the story actually calls for. Obviously, the story’s premise and the education level of the characters and narrator should dictate the level of diction used by the writer, but these writers seem to think that everyone should follow the same path of simple prose.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      I was once dinged for using a relatively common word that the critiquer happened to be unfamiliar with. He felt that just because *he* didn’t know the word, no one would. The word stayed!

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