I remember 9th grade English. This was the year where my high school began to concentrate on expanding the vocabulary of students. I remember the vocabulary workbooks where we had to focus on the spelling, definitions and usage of words.
We were encouraged to use these newly learned words in our daily conversation and, especially, in our writings.
I learned words like:
Dotard – A person, especially an old person, exhibiting a decline in mental faculties; a weak-minded or foolish old person. (I’m sensitive to this one these days).
Lugubrious – mournful, dismal, or gloomy, especially in an affected, exaggerated, or unrelieved manner.
Prestidigitation – sleight of hand; legerdemain. (Don’t you love it when two other rarely used words are part of the definition of a rarely used word?)
So, why am I going down memory lane to my high school studies? I learned and retained a lot of these words. You would think, as an author, that would be a great asset to my writing.
I would submit to you, this is not true. In fact, I am frustrated by books that cause me to look up the meanings of words or that use pretentious language.
Simplifying the Language in Your Writing
The heading is not meant to encourage you to write in a boring style limited to one syllable words. It’s more of a call to write in a simple, understandable language. This is especially true in dialog, but applies to all of your fiction writing and most non-fiction as well.
What I am encouraging is writing in plain, understandable language. This allows your reader to enjoy your story without having to struggle to understand word meanings and context.
I’m an IT guy in my day job. Many of the examples of confusing language that I’ve seen with unnecessarily confusing language appears in the manuals and help text written for technology. The main reason for this is that, traditionally, these documents were written by other technology people that were familiar with the technical jargon.
My writing delves into technology sometimes and my characters may be technical propeller-heads. I often use this as a source of humor and use that humor to explain to the reader what is being said. Here is a typical example:
Jonesy turned to Frank to tell him what he found as he hacked into the mob’s bank accounts.
“I was able to spoof the IP address and log in with a pseudo script using proxy credentials to gain access to the administrator rights,” Jonesy said as he clicked the keyboard frantically.
“That sounds great, I think,” Frank said. “How about giving that to me again in English.”
Jonesy looked up with a mixture of amusement and frustration at his partner’s lack of literacy in technology.
“I found the bad guy’s money and I now have access to it. Should we make it go bye, bye?”
“That’s better. Yes. Let’s make it go bye, bye,” Frank answered.
Sometimes you have to use jargon or terminology to give characters (and the author) credibility in what they’re writing. The example above is a simple way to explain it to your readers that may not have the same expertise.
This is an area where I struggle at times. I’ve spent much of my career writing business documents where formalized language is the norm. When I write fiction, I’ve found that I sometimes fall into that business vocabulary without realizing it. Here are some typical words that I’ve had to force myself to substitute.
Utilize – change to use.
Execute – change to perform or, even better, do.
Attempt – change to try.
You get the idea. These formalized words can be off-putting to readers.
This is something that Microsoft Word has helped me correct. It’s related to crutch words, but deals more with phrases or terms that we use that can be greatly simplified. Here are some examples:
All of a sudden – substitute suddenly.
Have to/Need to – substitute must.
At this point in time/At the present time – substitute now.
These are just some examples of the simplification that I have tried to bring to my writing. It’s a constant struggle as old writing habits are hard to overcome.
What about you? Do you have any examples of simplification that work for you?