Take Care Choosing Words.

I recently read a quite good series. A science fiction one.

It was at times slightly heavy going, but the story was strong, and the characters, though it took a book and a half to develop them, became people the reader cared about. Not in a really deep way, but deep enough to encourage the reader to continue. Over all, it was a good read and worthy of the time it took. I will not say here whose SF series it was, because it was not all good. There were a number of annoying plot holes and continuity errors.

The editing left a lot to be desired, but it wasn’t as bad as it could have been. This was an author who had clearly at least tried to do the right thing when it came to this critical aspect of publishing. They had just not hired a good enough editor. I have read books a thousand times worse, but this was still not to the minimum standard I reach for before I release my own work (but it WAS to the standard shown by most of the traditionally published books I have read recently). This often bemoaned aspect of modern literature highlighted another, bigger problem that many people do not consider. Appropriate language for your audience.

Far worse than the mediocre editing, was the ever present use of words beyond the vocabulary of many readers. Repeated use of terms from old English, some of those words out of circulation for centuries. It felt less like a writer trying to enjoy his work, and more like a writer showing off. It was terribly off putting, and I knew what the words meant! I can only imagine if I was reading it without my education behind me, I probably would not have finished. Every time one of those words appeared (as much as thrice a page at one point) it jagged me, the reader, out of the story so hard my head span. Some of these words were in fact used incorrectly, but I will forgive the editor missing that, this once.

It shattered the flow of the story, and quite possibly results in many readers putting it down. Yes SF has a reputation for intelligent readers. That does not mean you can bog the thing down with terms that most of them will have to look up. Even if they are on a Kindle and the definitions are a few buttons away. They should not have to spend most of their time reading an escapist diversion, learning new words they will never use, words from the past that have no place in a story of the future.

If your readers are not all linguistics professors, don’t use hundreds of obscure words only a handful of your readers will know. Especially when those words appear to be similar to other words that fit better. Most of your readers will call typo, and that makes you look stupid, not smart. You want your readers to enjoy the book enough to buy more. You want your readers to have faith in you, in your ability to keep them engaged. This is not a way to achieve that. Now before I go on, let me say this to clarify: Using peculiar words is not bad. Using hundreds of them in a torrent of flowery prose that reads like that irritating first year philosophy major trying to pick up your girlfriend at the union bar IS.

Know your audience, and write for them. Yes, write for yourself, but if you want readers, you need to target them with your words. If you love a word, that you know nobody else will know, don’t use it just to show off. Use it correctly, and use it wisely. If you use a word they have to look up, and use it wrong, not only have you knocked them out of the story while they look it up, you have made yourself look stupid into the bargain.

A writer who fails in this simple regard, by making their text too “wordy”, will not achieve their potential. A good writer chooses the best words, the most suitable words, and the words that will reach the intended audience. I recognise that writing for YA readers, you might throw a slightly over the bell curve vocabulary at them, this is fine, but piling on the obscure, antiquated or just plain unnecessary language will never be the way to show a word smith’s prowess. Less is more, and always will be.

Know your audience, and write for them. Help them to enjoy the story by giving it to them in a way which enables them to escape into your world. Most people are reading for entertainment. If it stops being entertaining, they stop reading. Read it yourself, after breaking from your work for a while, and you will probably be able to see what it is I am talking about. If your unnecessary word makes you pause and think “hehehe, I like that word, its a funky old word, something a bit unusual,” imagine what it does to the readers who need to put down the book and find a dictionary? Sometimes, it is essential. But when it is NOT essential, then it is a mistake, every single time.