So What If I Use Big Words In My Books?

(NOTE: Based on time elapsed since the posting of this entry, the BS-o-meter calculates this is 1.206% likely to be something that Ferrett now regrets.)

I have friends who tell me that I should write simple prose.  I shouldn’t mention “flensing” to describe someone having their body removed, I shouldn’t say how someone’s skin “horripilated” when they’re facing an otherworldly horror, I should just say the magic item glows instead of describing its lambent dweomer. 

But those are beautiful words, man. 

Why should they sit by the wayside because you’re too lazy to infer meaning?  Or, in the worst case, crack open a dictionary? 

Look, anyone who’s read my books – and please do – knows that my writing style isn’t some Lovecraftian word-salad heap of purple prose.  I write tight and I write clean.  But I think there’s also value in placing pretty, arcane words into a context where they can enrich a text: Either you know the word and understand why it’s the perfect word for that situation, or you see a word like “gloaming” used to describe the light of a dusky sunset and come to form a new word association.  

How’s that not delightful either way?

Some people say it’s distracting, show-offy.  And to them, I say their lack of willingness to be entranced by a new word is cowering at the gates of a glorious world, staunchly refusing new forms of entertainment simply because you’d have to fill in a blank or two.  I mean, sure, you can write simpler and simpler, but eventually you’re pounding out novels like Up-Goer Five, describing rockets in only the most ten thousand commonly used words. 

No; declaring the proper use of a word like “imprudence” to be “show-offy” is basically saying, “I’m put off when people remind me that I have a smaller vocabulary than they do.”  And really, I think that speaks more as to the reader than the writer. 

It is, of course, necessary to follow such a bold statement with a host of caveats, assuming you know what “caveat” means: yes, of course it’s possible to string together so many arcane words that the text becomes unreadable.  Yes, having ordinary American characters describe the monster as “rugose” suggests you suck at dialogue.  Yes, there’s lots of terrible writers whose prose becomes – as I said – Lovecraftian.  And there’s always that good ol’ bugaboo, “personal taste” – there are writers with prose so dense I don’t personally enjoy chopping my way through it, and it’s fine if you don’t too.  

But honestly, man.  A lot of the fuss over big words boils down to “I didn’t know that one.”  I bet one or more of the three-dollar words in this essay are ones you knew, and you probably said, “Well, that’s no big deal, but if the author should haul out a word like ‘thigmophilic’ – well, that’s crazy!”  Whereas the truth is that every word over a certain grade average risks throwing the reader out. 

Or the reader can choose to jump in.  

There’s nothing wrong with writing with simple terms: many authors do it, and do it well.  But there’s *also* nothing wrong with putting in a beautiful word that summarizes the situation perfectly, if you know what it means, so long as the sentence isn’t unfathomable if you don’t know the word.  

Because for me?  Yes.  Those murky shadows are penumbral.  It’s a beautiful word.  It fits if you know what it means.  And it sounds pretty regardless. 

That’s a win/win for me.  

10 Comments

  1. Douglas Scheinberg
    Apr 12, 2018

    I support “big words”!

  2. Cordelia
    Apr 12, 2018

    I am entirely unable to express how much I identify with this.

  3. Anonymous Alex
    Apr 12, 2018

    I’m with you on that, at least to a point. There’s an author whose name escapes me right now, who I’ve noticed very clearly has a “new vocabulary word” in his/her books, and that usage gets distracting to me. But in general, I enjoy and appreciate a well-placed new (to me) word. That’s how my vocabulary grows.

    But, of course, consider the source of this opinion. I think my commentary largely consists of short notes jotted off the top of my head; I’ve been told I leave the impression of an excessively precise logophile.

    -Alex

  4. ZzzzSleep
    Apr 12, 2018

    Just be careful. You wouldn’t want the reader to defenestrate any of your books

  5. RavenBlack
    Apr 12, 2018

    I agree, but also offer as a counterpoint this sentence:

    “Further in, the architecture becomes as imposing as any commemorating notables interred in some Brobdingnagian Père Lachaise.”

    (I recognize that you already included disapproval of sentences like this as part of your post, I just like to quote that terrible terrible sentence when it fits in conversation.)

  6. Angie
    Apr 12, 2018

    I agree compleely. [fistbump] I’ve had people make the same kinds of comments about my work. Someone trotted out the old chestnut about how all commercial writing should be written at the sixth grade level. Umm, to which I say, “Bite me.”

    I get that some people won’t like my stuff. But others will like it, for the same reasons the first group don’t. [shrug] And any book or story, no matter how simple (or cool or funny or exciting or engrossing) will have detractors. [shrug] That’s just how mass opinion works.

    I think it’s a great thing that there are writers who write all kinds of stuff, in all kinds of styles. That means any given reader has that much more of a chance of finding books they think are awesome.

    Angie

  7. Jonathan
    Apr 13, 2018

    #1- I love big words, and I cannot lie.

    #2- I don’t understand why anyone who owns a smartphone would have a problem with encountering a word they do not know when reading. Just Google it and expand your vocabulary.

    #3- Horripilated is a great word I have never heard before, but now have fallen in love with Thank you.

  8. Phil
    Apr 13, 2018

    When you’re writing, how much do you consider the reader’s educational background or whether they’re ESL? Is it somewhat irrelevant (e.g. – maybe you think they would benefit from looking it up so you think this is actively good), or would you say you have a more specific audience you’re shooting to resonate with?

    • TheFerrett
      Apr 18, 2018

      My audience is generally me, so I use words that I like. It seems to have worked out reasonably well, given a little time.

  9. Deryn
    Apr 23, 2018

    One of your books made me look up a word. I don’t remember what it is now, but I *loved* that feeling. I haven’t had to do that for probably 25 years. Thank you.

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