Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Choosing your words carefully

As a writer I find often that words flow out of me like a stream of water, rapid and refreshing. When I read back over the prose I pen, however, and consider the readers who will be enjoying my novels, I wonder how many of the words in my vocabulary as a 46 year-old engineer will be grasped by the 12-25 year-olds who will be reading them.

I'm encouraged by many writing blogs, books, and literary sources, to consider the vocabulary of the reader, and filter my words to reach their level (or below).

Counterwighting this is the knowledge that as we 'dumb down' our vocabulary for the reader, we inadvertently do them a disservice. Because we don't consider that these novels we write are the very sources many young people will use to expand their vocabularies.

Allow me to explain.

As a young boy, at the tender age of ten, I was devouring books by authors like Edgar Rice Burroughs, Rudyard Kipling, Robert Louis Stevenson, Andre Norton, Piers Anthony, Larry Niven, Isaac Asimov, and Robert Heinlein.

I was not studying books like The Dictionary. Or the Encyclopedia Brittanica. Call me an escapist, or a Walter Mitty.

But reading a big book of words in order to expand my stockpile of terms was just a waste of precious time, when I could be hidden in an apple barrel listening to Long John Silver planning to take over the ship. Or racing across the ochre moss of Mars with John Carter to save his precious Dejah Thoris. Or discovering new worlds with the half ship's cat, half ??? named Eet, in search of the Zero Stone.

No, my vocabulary came vicariously, through my exposure to these books i enjoyed so much.

Often, a term would roll out I didn't know, and I would consider the context, and learn a new word in the process. Did I look up the word in the Dictionary? Infrequently, but yes. More often, I reasoned out the word on my own. I was usually right, but not always. I didn't let these short hiccups stop me from enjoying a good read. I used it to expand my horizons.

I believe we must balance this desire to expand the reader's vocabulary with a healthy dose of realism - the average reader will quit if they have to check much more than a few words in the dictionary. I know I would have. But, we shouldn't expect the reader to simply check their brains at the door, either.

How do YOU find this balance as a writer? Do you write your novel in your own words, then do a Word check for reading level, and adjust as needed? Do you adjust it for the average reader at all, or risk alienating them?

1 comment:

  1. When I was in primary and secondary school, I was encouraged to accept new words and vocabulary in novels; to use context clues and even dictionaries to find out what new words meant; and then to incorporate them into my four vocabularies. I, too, was taught that this was how I could and should increase my vocabulary.
    In the English Education program, though, there has been contention about this. Today's young people don't like hearing words that they do not have some kind of mastery over. But is that really enough to keep them from reading our novels, if said novels have big vocabulary in them?
    I hate it when people accuse me of being bombastic when I'm not trying to be. I believe that they use it as a defense because in reality, they do not want to do the work of finding out the definition to new words and incorporating them into their vocabularies.
    Also in English Education, we've discussed the issue of using context to find out the definition of a word. Sometimes, the context around a word does not give you a lot of clues as to the word's definition. In those cases, is it better to skip the word, or to actually take the time to look it up?
    In many primary and secondary school libraries, librarians and teachers encourage students to test their compatibility with a book they want to read: They have students read the first paragraph of the first page in a book, and if they do not know more than five words, that book is too hard for them. Otherwise, they expand their vocabulary in the same manner.

    Ultimately, I don't know whether I would concede dumbing down the vocabulary in my novels because readers are too lazy (and yes, I would intentionally call them lazy) to try to work out definitions and connotations for themselves.

    BTW: These days, it's easier than ever to receive discreet definitions to unknown or unfamiliar words. Text "D" followed by the word you want to look up to Google (Yes, that's the word "google") and you will receive a return text with the definition of the word.