Friday, February 8, 2013

The Great Word Debate

All of us over at the Scribblerati watering hole get along remarkably well. I think this is the biggest reason why we've kept our group so small... adding another personality into the mix would risk endangering our sanguine dynamic.

Not to say we don't disagree on things. If we didn't bring diverse points of view to the table, we wouldn't be much of a critique group - we'd have to rename ourselves "Preaching to the Choir," or "You Guys are the Best" (said with a drunken slur).

The one disagreement that keeps coming up again and again is the Great Word Debate. I like me some big words. Not ridiculously out-of-place, big-for-the-sake-of-being-snooty words - but words that either are A) Very specific and therefore exactly right for the moment, B) Fit rhythmically into the sentence, or C) are charming and funny. Some other members of the group, however, disagree with the use of unusual words in writing. They quote Stephen King, who noted that (paraphrasing here) any word that stops the reader in his or her tracks should be removed, as it gets in the way of the story. I quip back that I'm less on team Stephen King, and more on team Stephen Fry - a man who uses a heck of a lot more outré words than I.

For example, in my book, Ursula Evermore and the Case of the Man Who Wasn't, I use the following words: circumnavigate, parsimonious, collywobbles, and uxoricide.  Mark, in particular, has objected to every one of these words, and more. At most, I have one of these per chapter, and probably less often then that.

My arguments:
A) Many people do know these words. I know them, after all - and it won't stop the flow of the story for these people.
B) If the reader doesn't know the words - then they can either look them up, or try and glean their meanings from the surrounding text. After all, in this modern age, the answer is often only a right click or a touch away. This is how I learn new words - I read them in a story, book or article, and I look them up. Heck, several years ago I learned the word 'sartorial' from Entertainment Weekly - hardly a highbrow publication.

Mark's side:
A) He's right, there are many people who will come across a so-called 10 dollar word, and because of frustration, or thinking the author is being pretentious, will put down the book.
B) Sometimes you're just in the mood to read something with a good story and characters, and you don't want to have a dictionary by your side.
C) People who abuse the thesaurus are annoying.

Jon, for his part, argues point A more often than anything -the fact that my word choices are going to cost me readers. Eventually, after several years of back and forth on this - the argument becoming more and more heated each time - we had to decide to agree to disagree. And the truth is this - the type of person who will want to read Mark's awesome post-apocalyptic vampire book is more likely to be akin to Mark in his or her preferences, and the person who will want to read my time travel 1920s British murder mystery is more likely to be akin to me.

But it brings up the question - what kind of reader are you? Are you on Team King, or Team Fry - or on a different team altogether? Do you like to encounter unknown words in your fiction, or do you prefer your story to flow, uninterrupted?

Weigh in now... !!



Jon said...

It's not EVERY big word, it's SOME big words. My objection is contextual. Sometimes the Velociraptor is right, man.

Anonymous said...

Team Fry, most definitely Team Fry. One of my favorite authors is Michael Perry, who hails from northwest Wisconsin. He spins a lovely yarn, but my FAVORITE thing about his books is that they never fail to expand my vocabulary. As Twain said, "The difference between the right word and the almost-right word is like the difference between lightning and a lightning bug." If we curtail our vocabulary for the sake of what we assume our audience desires, we are contributing to the collective dumbing-down of our society.

Shawn Enderlin said...

I wholeheartedly agree that finding the right word for the right moment is of paramount importance, but if no one knows what the word is then its not the right word.

Go team King! ;-)

Shawn Enderlin said...

Oh, and I love the Stephens Chart

Qlaudie said...

Go Anon! Team Fry FTW!

Qlaudie said...

And Shawn - "no one knows the word"....??? Come on...if I know the word, someone else does. I'm not floating alone in the universe.

Mark Teats said...

Use of these monumental words makes me feel abacinated and are as painful to me as an acronyx. But I best cease this rodomontade, for perhaps I’ve been imbibing too much amrita. (Sorry, I just discovered the “A” section of the Grandiloquent Dictionary).

Team King rules! But you knew I'd say that...

On this topic I think we’ll continue to have to agree to disagree. But I think that’s all right.

I appreciate the different point-of-views the members of our critique group bring to the writing conversation. Honestly, Q, I think you use your vocabulary in your writing well, but when I have to pause to look up a word or a reference from the early 1900’s, I’m no longer in your story. And I like your story and don't want to leave :-)

In my current writing class at Hamline I've been assigned to read six essays about writing this week. One I really struggled with. The author is clearly brilliant, but most of his sentences are enormously long, and filled with loads of "ten-buck" words. I get to write about the piece that engaged me the most. It's not going to be that one!

In the end, word usage in writing is the author’s choice, and the reader’s as well (as far as are they digging what the author has put on the page, and will they keep turning to the next page). To each their own.

And just because:

The road to hell is paved with adverbs.
~Stephen King

“Kill your darlings, kill your darlings, even when it breaks your egocentric little scribbler’s heart, kill your darlings.”
~ Stephen King

Shawn Enderlin said...

Yes, Claudia, I know you don't float alone in the universe. In fact, I'm very much aware that even the lowliest soldier in M-81's Goraxian Deep Space Corps knows what uxoricide means.

I should have said "most Earthlings" instead of "no one."

See what the wrong word can do? ;-)

Jon said...

I'll be honest, I'm Team Stephen

Lisa said...

I don't think it will come as any surprise that I lean toward camp Fry. My newest word learned through reading is prestidigitator--someone with skill at slight of hands. From Le Guin's The Dispossessed. The word did throw me out of the story, but I'm so happy to know it-- "Presto" "Digit"-- what an awesome word. I'll likely never use it in conversation, but knowing it makes me happy.

The Secret Weapon said...

I confess up front I am the husband of the author of the above blog, so perhaps you find it suspicious that I land firmly in Team Fry. But I assure you it is not from a desire for household peace that I cast that vote. The fact that I would cast that vote is one of the reasons we came together in the first place.

I remember one of our earliest conversations about a word. I had been reading that hack Fitzgerald—Tender Is The Night—when I came upon the word "propinquity," meaning nearness in time or place. I remember guessing roughly at it's meaning in context, and thinking how the RHYTHM of the sentence was so great, how it SET A PERFECT TONE. I looked up the word, and then I mentally high-fived the ghost of Fitzgerald. It actually fit the emotion and deeper meaning his character was conveying at that moment much better than if he had flatly used the word "nearness" or something similar. Even though I paused to look it up, it improved my reading experience significantly. And the word has been in my life ever since.

I agree a writer needs to be judicious with those kinds of words. But the idea that all stories suffer when the vocabulary rises over some arbitrary level? That's purely about each and every person's sensibility, not a universal rule.

Shawn Enderlin said...

Nicely said, Jazzman.

I could get behind that argument.

Your comment is a perfect example of how there are no absolutes, that there's a time and place for everything.

And (apparently) a cliché, for every occasion.

Qlaudie said...

THANK YOU, Shawn. Earthlings. See, how hard was that? ;)
Lisa... I love the word prestidigitator! In fact, there are a lot of great words out there for magicians and magic... including two favorites... thaumaturge and legerdemain.

Rich Cowles said...

I think that the perfect word, no matter how big or unusual, may cause readers to pause in their tracks, but a word (big or little) that draws attention to itself because it doesn't fit the story, style or sentence will stop readers in their tracks and cause them to spend their time with another writer.