Wednesday, May 11, 2005

Writing Tip: Only Use The Words You Know

Now this may seem limiting when it comes to writing your story or novel or script, but it makes sense. The vocabulary of each person is different as well as the number of words each person knows. Speaking for myself, I like to think I have a strong vocabulary at my command, but when writing I try to use only the common words I know. Don’t confuse your audience.

But doesn’t that hamper my great fiction masterpieces? What if Monet used only yellow and blue? My answer to that is (and here comes my opinion) when you are writing something the main objective is communication. You are trying to convey something to another person through words. If you use obscure, long or inappropriate words to do that you are in fact hampering your communication to others, gumming it up with flowery language. Oh, and I’m quite sure when Monet started drawing he was using only a pencil, a gray one with no color at all. We all need to walk before we can run.

So, what I’m trying to convey here (is it working?) is that using a huge vocabulary because you think it will sound more sophisticated and impress others is most likely having the opposite effect. I’m not saying a Thesaurus is a bad tool, and I use one a fair bit, but don’t insert words in your fiction just because they are sitting there in the Thesaurus. Make sure the words you are using are exactly the ones you need to convey your ideas to the reader. And believe me, using smaller, common words is a much better way to go.

Never use a word you don’t know the full meaning of. Check the dictionary before you insert it into your writing. Do you think Monet would have grabbed up a brown blob of something and stuck it to one of his paintings if he didn’t know exactly what it was? It could have been something the cat left on his palette. I’ll bet he always checked first before applying it to his work.

And when you are starting out in your fiction writing career, you may not have the greatest vocabulary to use. That’s quite acceptable. Take a good look at Tolkien’s writing sometime. Tolkien rarely used a big word in his work and this guy was an English professor, a walking dictionary of multiple languages. But he chose to use simple words because they work.

Do you remember - See Dick run? - I do. Do you think it would sound better as - Observe Dick perambulate - I don’t think so. In fact I’ve just said Dick is "walking about" not running. And what’s wrong with the word see? You see?

If you want to improve your vocabulary, and what writer doesn’t, the best way I know how is to read a lot of different books. But, while reading, keep a dictionary close by and look up every word you don’t know, even the ones you are not one hundred percent sure about. I have a great Bookman electronic dictionary that is very small and contains some 70,000 words so I don’t have any excuse not to have a dictionary handy. I also have a Webster’s dictionary that looks like a small house for those words my electronic one doesn’t have.

In the long haul (if you look up all the words you are unsure about) you will learn a lot more words and may find reading even more enjoyable because you understand more clearly what the author is communicating. And in time you will start to use more appropriate vocabulary too.

So keep it simple applies to your fiction. Use an obscure word only if it is the exact word you want. Remember, it’s not the vocabulary that makes your fiction great, but the story itself.

1 comment:

  1. Agreed. I was reading HPL and Clark Ashton Smith when I was 9. As a result the teachers would send notes home to my folks saying the other kids in class couldn't understand my essays when I read them aloud!!Smith was notorious for using giant words or obscure words. Fulvous=tawny, or cephalic appendage=head.

    Another bad thing is using a word that you think means one thing when it in fact means another. Brian Lumley uses the word incunabula in a sense meaning occult, when in fact it's Latin for "from the cradle"--of printing. It refers to the first printed books, not the Necronomicon.