Friday, July 30, 2010

Do You Like Obscure Words?

by G.Parker

I belong to several different groups of writers. One such group is LDS and has their own forum for writing (similar to Authors Incognito). Off and on we do a Book in a Month, sponsored by one of the members. It usually involves a virtual trip somewhere, and we all play along with it, usually enjoying ourselves immensely. I've only met one of the people on there in person, everyone else I know by reputation and conversation. Its been another writing support that I tend to lose track of every now and then.

This month was one of those Book in a Month deals, and I totally blew if off. I'd even asked to be part of it! I sat at my computer yesterday and read through each day because the person who was running the virtual tour (which was to Tibet) had put quotes at the top of each day that were amazing little snippets of information, inspiration and humor. The one I wanted to talk about was this one for July 24th:

"Just because you have a thesaurus doesn't mean you have to use the words at the bottom of the list." Alan Kellogg.

Now, I've never heard of Alan Kellogg, but I loved that quote. You see, I've met people like that. They like to use the most obscure words known to man and see if anyone even knows what they're talking about. I tend to have a large vocabulary simply because I'm a voracious reader. My children have become the same way, knowing words that others will likely not -- their teachers were always amazed in school (at least in that area). My hubby, on the other hand, usually will recognize a word that sounds familiar, but doesn't always know what they mean. Fortunately he's not intimidated, he just asks us what we're talking about and we go on.

But when you're writing something you hope the majority of people are going to read, the wording needs to be carefully chosen. If you pick words at the bottom of the recommended word list, most people aren't going to know, understand, or care about them.

For example: This week I have felt so lethargic.

Lethargic is a common word, right? So perhaps I'm tired of using it and want something else. I look it up in my trusty Roget's Thesaurus and find several options. The last word in the list (which is amazingly short, by the way) is stupor. If I were to use that word, it would change the whole perception of my sentence. I tend to associate stupor with drunkenness, or thoughtlessness. Definitely not with a heat related malaise.

So when you're looking for words to use, remember that your reader might not have the same vocabulary or knowledge and write accordingly. It doesn't mean you have to write everything for a kindergartner, but by no means does it mean things should be approached with the idea of a college literacy professor reading it.

Just a thought. Enjoy (or relish) the day!


Jolene Perry said...

I think they say that most novels are written at about an eighth grade level? Someone correct me if I'm wrong but I've read it in several places.
Sad but true. When you know more than language it also makes you realize how much using one word over another as in your example of stupor and lethargic, changes the whole feeling of the passage.
Thanks for the thought provoking post.

Sharon Cohen said...

When I've been concerned with the readability of my work I've used an online utility to test the text. There are many free readability tests on the internet.

I've also been taught to write for 8th grade readability. It depresses me to shoot for that mark. If every writer aims for and achieves an 8th grade readability level, aren't we contributing to the "dumbing down" of society?

Steve said...

I often find that when I use BIG words at the bottom of the list, I'm really only impressing myself.