This article is posted in Brain2Page.
Anyone who read my first novel knows I was fond of big words. I went out of my way to use words like “peripatetic” and “eructation” simply because I knew them. It took a while to understand that this was a mistake. I’d artificially raised the bar for people to read and enjoy my novel with absolutely no gain.
When I was younger (and not very much younger) I had this mentality that “I’m writing for people like me” when “people like me” was a flimsy, shifting concept. Also a pretentious asshole.
My misconception was that the ideas would seem bigger and more intelligent if the language I used was bigger and more intelligent. This can be true; my grandmother read part of my first novel and then immediately put it down when she got to some words she didn’t know. The sentence structure was too complex for her. Her perception of the novel was that it was incredibly smart; too smart for her.
I had artificially raised the boundary to exclude people based on just a few words and needlessly complex structures.
Big Words Don’t Make Big Ideas
When I write now, I have that experience in the back of my mind. If I want people to read and enjoy a story, the onus is not on them to “be smarter” as I used to think. The responsibility is on me to write something that is accessible without being pandering, to write big ideas and not just big words.
Don’t get me wrong. I love words, and I love big words. I love language itself, because it’s so versatile and can be so beautiful, both on accident and on purpose.
But wait; everyone I know says “Write for yourself. Don’t write for anyone else.” Isn’t that flying in the face of my advice here?
Sure, if you want to be super specific and self-limiting. The concepts are not mutually exclusive. You can write for yourself while still considering your intended market. Don’t write for them, but write with them in mind. That’s an incredibly difficult lesson both to learn and to put into practice. But that’s not what this blog post is about.
So the question becomes: How do you know if a big word is unnecessary? The simple answer is “if there’s a more common word that would fit in the context, your word is too big”. And that’s not necessarily just letter length of a word. In the case of “peripatetic” above, I used it when “traveling” would have sufficed. In the case of “eructation” above, I could have used “burp” or “belch” and been fine.
If your idea isn’t a “big idea” that’s okay. Many great stories have been told about simple lessons, ideas, morals, ethics. Triumph of good over evil is incredibly simplistic, but people are still using it today to tell stories. It’s a big idea that’s been done to death, but it still has worth to it in the right hands.
Just don’t try to make your writing seem like something it isn’t. Let it be what it is, for you and for your readers. Everyone will be happier in the end.
Yeah, with word choice context is king and “big words don’t make big ideas” is a good way of putting it. The word “eructation” was used perfectly by Jonathan Swift in “A Tale of a Tub,” in connection with an advanced metaphor, but in most cases using the word won’t accomplish anything other than showing that you know it.
I personally think that one of the greatest offenders is this regard is Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace. So many of his actual “ideas” are fairly trite observations or morals (e.g., “don’t do drugs kids, they’ll mess you up”) or advocating a fad (e.g., new sincerity). But this novel is replete with so many big and obscure words that readers create “David Foster Wallace word lists.” That may attract people who simply wish to be seen as literary and intelligent, but I think it’s vastly different than good writing, good literature, or good storytelling.
One of the reasons I like David Foster Wallace, and others who go out of their way to use “big words” in their novels (Dean Koontz usually picks a big word and peppers it throughout a novel until you realize he’s used too much pepper), is because it gives me an opportunity to learn new words while still being in an entertained frame of mind. But there’s certainly a point where it becomes pure pretension and ostentation.
A literary peacock, if you will.
The red-assed baboons of the writing world.
I’ll stop now.