Tuesday, December 3, 2013

A Rose by any Other Name...

Would be kind of confusing and a little more complicated.

My 19-year-old son has discovered words. Not just your regular, everyday words – he pretty much discovered most of them when he was three – but those polysyllabic ones with Greek or Latin roots that are more often found in the vocabulary portion of the SAT than in the real world vernacular (is “vernacular” one of those words?)

I’m proud and impressed at his initiative. He’s looking up about 15 words a day and using them every chance he can, both in regular conversation and in his writings for school. Sadly, his brand-new complicated words usually don’t fit as well as the ordinary ones he’s replaced. Moreover, while he thinks that using them makes him sound smarter, it doesn’t. Either he’s misused the word so the sentence just sounds odd, or he hasn’t, and he just sounds pretentious. I’ve tried to tell him there is certain vocabulary that is specific to certain industries or circumstances and sounds weird outside of that context, but like every college student, he prefers not to listen to his mother.

But it does bring up a question: When did we decide that good writing automatically meant the use of long, complicated, obscure words? Because it’s not just my son who thinks this.

I remember Mrs. Mitchell’s ninth grade English class, in which every new piece of writing – an act of Shakespeare, a Carson McCullers novel – was preceded by a vocabulary list (and test) consisting of words that would be found in the text. The message was subtle but clear – good writers used words that their readers would need to look up to understand. That is, if their readers were high-school students. (Ironically, I did poorly on most of those weekly vocabulary tests, but somehow those words made it into my brain over the years anyway, which goes to show the best way to learn words is organically.)

I don’t believe that good writing makes readers head for the dictionary. I tell my son to communicate to be understood, not to impress. That the ideas he seeks to convey matter more than the words he uses to convey them. Still, he persists in trying to force those words into writings where they don’t belong.

This is a trap that many writers fall into. It may not be specific to long, complicated words, but oftentimes new writers think they have to sound different – smarter, older, more sophisticated – in order to be taken seriously. Or those who are writing for a younger audience go out of their way to sound more current, sweating over the latest slang and asking every teenager they know if their work sounds like it comes from one of their peers.

It’s a trap because, over the course of a 65,000 word novel, writing in a voice not your own is exhausting. Writing in your own voice is hard enough as it is, but when you’re pretending to be someone you’re not as a writer, the phoniness shines through.

I’m not saying that you should excise any word from your writing that has over three syllables. If you’re a logophile and you know it, then your writing should surely show it. And many writers are very well-read, and have picked up sophisticated vocabulary naturally.

But if you can’t get through a paragraph without clicking on the “thesaurus” button…. Stop. That first word that came into your head was the right one. Trust your instincts. Trust your gut. Trust that any reader who needs a dictionary to get through your first page is

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