Do you Know Some Big Words?
Do you possess, in your linguistic arsenal, a bountiful supply of ostentatious colloquialisms and a general amount of superior verbiage?
Awesome! Keep them out of your book!
I could write a whole other post about House of Leaves, which should be subtitled: ‘Look how smaaaaaaaaart I am!’ but I’ll leave that for another day. If I get around to it.
I’ve come across two manuscripts lately where the authors’ voices are lost amongst a forest of complex language. It’s almost as if the author is trying so hard to convince themselves and others that they are great writers, that they forget everything they’ve learned about the craft of writing, and decided to take the lazy way out.
You can’t convince your readers that you’re a good writer by using SAT vocabulary. Sure, a word here and there is absolutely acceptable and may even give your passage a boost. When it’s acceptable, it’s acceptable. When it’s not, it’s eye-roll inducing and cringe-worthy.
If you’ve filled your manuscript with overly-complicated sentences that are so full of those ‘big words’ that the story becomes secondary to your need to showcase what a great big intellectual you are, well, you should probably just go ahead and douse your manuscript in gasoline. In fact, I encourage it. If writing a manuscript using English words that are as obscure to the average reader as Sanskrit, here’s how you fix it:
- Siphon gas from your car. Don’t bother to use a hose, just suck it right from the tap.
- Keep said gasoline inside your cheeks like a squirrel prepared for hibernation.
- Print out your manuscript. (This is the hard part. You may be inclined to swallow the gasoline while waiting for the manuscript to print. Don’t do that. Don’t hurt yourself.)
- One manuscript is printed, purse your lips together like you’re about to give grandma a kiss on the cheek and spray the gasoline all over the manuscript.
- Light that shit on fire and dance as it burns.
You get the idea. It’s worthless. Yeah. I’m sorry to have to tell you that. It is. You started a story with the intention of showing off instead of sharing an idea with any substance. Your readers aren’t going to fall for that shit. You’re going to have to start over. Throw the thesaurus on the fire and learn to express yourself simply. I’m not telling you to ditch your narrative voice; in fact, I’m telling you to remove the mask you’ve placed over it.
I’m in no way advocating over-simplifying your use of language. No. I’m not asking you to ‘dumb it down,’ or go the opposite direction and write at a third-grade reading level.
Each author has a distinct voice. In fact, I’ve recently worked on a manuscript where an author managed to still maintain his voice despite his usage of complicated language to express simple concepts. I did ask him to try to imagine what the average reader is expecting from him. I also advised that if, he doesn’t want angry readers to toss his book aside in frustration, (or even the patient ones who will give the benefit of the doubt to the author by looking up his vocabulary via Bing, Google, or a dictionary), that he use the first word that comes to mind. What I believe he might have been doing was actually using a thesaurus. And I can’t knock that practice. In fact, I encourage it!
But, when you’re using the thesaurus to locate the most possibly convoluted measure of expression for a single word, you’re masking your voice. This author happens to be very talented. I think that, for him, the issue was his confidence. He was masking his voice because he feared the results of fully utilizing it. Writing is a deeply personal endeavor, one where you’re practically baring your soul to strangers. And that can be scary.
I’ve always thought the most talented writers are those who can express many things in a small space. This should be the goal of any novice who may happen to read this odd blog post. Here’s another goal for you: always move your story forward. But that’s getting off track.
My point here, is that the average reader does not give a shit about your personal vocabulary and how advanced it might be. They aren’t reading your book to gauge how intelligent you are, or how many words you know. They are reading your book because they want to be told a story. They want to be told a good story.
So, what’s the next step following lighting your pretentious manuscript on fire and cheering as it burns?
Open a new Word (or Google, or whatever the hell you use) document, and start over. Tell your story. Tell it well, and the reader will automatically know that you are intelligent. There’s no better way to showcase your intellect than by putting together a riveting tale. There is no need to show off when you’re capable of telling a great story. Or at least a good story, where the reader doesn’t have to stop every few minutes to bang their head against a wall, or pick up a dictionary to figure out what your odd, five-word string of gibberish might actually mean.
Write what comes to you, edit it to be as simple to understand as possible, find a great editor to work with on the final product, then send your work out into the world. So long as you can tell a great story – readers will continue to look for book spines with your name on them.