Friday, 26 November 2010

Put the Thesaurus Down

I don't generally rant on my blog, but sometimes things happen and you just have to speak up about it. I've read several books on writing and they all say one thing very clearly: use simple language when writing.

Now, I learned a lot of new vocab when I was 13 and 14, reading Terry Brooks. I have no problem with big words. I have no problem with literary fiction (I loved David Mitchell's Cloud Atlas and Umberto Eco's Name of the Rose and Foucault's Pendulum, and find it surprising that John Lanchester's The Debt to Pleasure isn't more popular). But there's a time and a place for big words and fancy writing. And more importantly, if you're going to use words the average (or even above average) reader doesn't know, don't use too many and don't make them have to look the word up. Work the word in so it's understandable in context.

Why? Because your job as a writer is to entertain me. You're trying to draw me into the story so I forget the real world. I can't do that if I have to reach for my dictionary every five minutes. Words are your tools. They are meant to paint a virtual world in my mind. The more I notice the words the less enthralled I am with what you're trying to do with them. The words should become invisible vehicles for the story. They should not take the limelight.

Why am I ranting about this now? I tried reading a book a few months ago, Shadow's Son, by Jon Sprunk. This was my first experience with an author who tried to be too clever with his words to the point that the words themselves made the book unreadable for me. Unfortunately, it hasn't been the last.

I thought it was a fluke, that Sprunk was just highly educated and wanted to prove that with his book, or that he liked his thesaurus too much and overused it in my point of view. The book wasn't right for me. End of story.

Earlier this week I picked up The Last Page by Anthony Huso. The first 50 pages were great. Interesting story, good characters, well paced, then bam! I'd passed over a few bizarre words and phrases already. There weren't enough of them to cause me to leave the comfortable world Huso had created, until pages 58-59. Suddenly I got 'horripilated flesh', 'purpurean shadows' and 'grume' (which auto-correct doesn't even recognize as a word, tried to make it 'grime'). I'm a university educated woman. If you know what these words mean without looking them up in a dictionary, than your education was better than mine. Luckily my husband was on the computer and was kind enought to look them up for me so I didn't have to get my dictionary. Under normal circumstances I wouldn't bother looking the words up. I got a sense of what 'horripilated' meant based on the context. I didn't care enough about purpurean as it didn't seem to matter to the story whether I understood that word or not. Grume I had to look up as it sounded important. Still, I no longer expect to need a dictionary when reading a fantasy novel.

This two page spread caused me to completely lose the thread of the story as I decided whether it was worth the effort of understanding the author's words. THIS IS NOT A PROBLEM I SHOULD HAVE AS A READER. I have tried to keep reading. Over the next 20 pages I've uncovered 'ogive' (a gothic architectural term that I never once encountered in the classes on gothic art and architecture I took in university), 'squamous' and 'crepuscular'. Seriously, I can't keep reading if every few pages I have to stop and look something up. I'm not enjoying the story anymore, I'm too annoyed by the author's word choice.

I was going to read 10 more pages before throwing in the towel. Ten more pages to see if Huso could bring his focus back to his story instead of his words. But I can't. I read for fun. And reading this book is no longer fun. Every time I find a new mystery word I have to close the book and think about what Huso has done. Why has he picked that particular word over all the other more readable words out there.

Let me reiterate, the job of a writer is to write in a way that their point gets across and the reader is entertained by the story the writer is telling. If the words the writer uses stops the reader from understanding and or enjoying the story, then the writer isn't doing their job properly.

Now obviously other people liked these books. They had agents, editors, etc. They were published. They must have a market. That market is, unfortunately, not me.

If you talk using fancy words and think in fancy words, by all means keep writing with fancy words. If you don't, if you're using a thesaurus to write because you want your book to sound 'literary', put it down. Some authors can do literary well. They can do the big words and the flowery phrases. They know what the words mean and they use them precisely. They also provide clues in the text for readers to understand the words without reading with a dictionary.

But seriously, if I want to learn what 'evanesced' means, I'd read the dictionary (and I just checked, it's not even in my dictionary). I'm reading your book for the story. Don't make me buy a bigger dictionary. Use your tools wisely.


The Brillig Blogger said...

though it isn't as easy as that. Evanesced is the kind of word that drives me crazy since there are five common words mean the same thing and this one doesn't really add anything that those don't. But squamous isn't a common word yet many people have a squamous cell carcinoma, a very common skin cancer, so even though I don't know what squamous means it doesn't bother me to see it used because I have seen it pretty often. I am reminded of my uncle who was in pharmacology and could drop obscure Scrabble words at the drop of a hat that weren't obscure to him at all, but also reminded of an editor telling a client of mine that the author couldn't be Gene Wolfe for one sentence.

Alexander M Zoltai said...

I love my thesaurus and wish Roget were one of my ancestors; but, as I've aged and grown more pliable, I find eighth grade or collage freshman vocabulary easier to mold into gratifying art.

Loved your post and wish I were in a position to take your day-job away from you :-)

Just had to add you to my Blogroll:

Jessica Strider said...

Ultimately, I think there are some authors with the skill to do literary well, and others who still need practice. It's not as easy as just throwing in big words and making up fancy sounding phrases.

It's also not a 'literature' (ie general fiction) vs genre fiction problem, because I've read some great genre books that were highly literary and well written (eg: Under Heaven by Guy Gavriel Kay and The Dervish House by Ian McDonald).

And I love my day job! :D