I Like Big Words and I Cannot Lie

I love big words.

Of course I do. I’m a writer, a one-time English major, and a rabid reader. Words are my thing. I’m a walking dictionary for my family, who actually laugh at me for the words I use. Often, I can’t think of a simple, everyday word and a multi-syllabic one leaps into its place. It’s ridiculous.

But big words don’t belong in fiction writing. My job is to make the story flow so readers forget they’re reading. If they have to get out a dictionary to figure out what’s going on, I’ve failed. Not only have I pulled them out of the story, but I’ve made them put my book down—and once the book is down, there’s always a chance it won’t get picked back up.

So, no big words. But I guess I wasn’t always so wise, and my big words earned me a bad review. Negative reviews always crush me, but this one really made me feel bad. Loosely quoted, she said, “this author is trying to make me feel stupid by using big words.”

Obviously, that wasn’t my intent. But reader’s perceptions are what writing’s all about, and it bothered me that even one person could feel that way. I write to entertain. I write to show the West I love. I write to remind readers of the magic of falling in love for the first time. I write to make people feel good in a million ways, and never bad. Certainly never stupid.

So now, when I find a five-syllable word that fits, I reach for the thesaurus and look for a simpler way to express myself. The point of writing is communication, and simplicity is always better—more transparent, more communicative, and more relaxing for the reader.

There are some books where we want to reach for the dictionary. When I start one of Elizabeth Georges Inspector Lynley mysteries, I know I’m going to learn at least one new word. That’s part of the pleasure I look for in her books, and one of the reasons I choose them. They’re set in a world where people use big words, so it’s fine.

But my books are about cowboys and ranchers. I write in third person, from my characters’ points of view, and they don’t generally think in big words—not because they’re “stupid,” but because they tend to be practical, git-‘er-done people who won’t bother with five syllables when one will do. They’re also in the throes of some very big emotions, so unless my heroine’s a college professor or writer herself, she’s more likely to think in four-letter words than four-syllable ones. (I do try to minimize the cussing. That’s a whole ‘nother blog post topic, though.)

I’m careful about big words now, but in the first draft, when I just let thoughts flow onto the paper, I still catch myself using a long word where something simpler would do. Sometimes it makes me laugh, so here are my word adventures for today, just for fun.

  • Innocuous. I like this word because it’s hard to spell and I got it right. I was very proud of myself when Word didn’t get out its little red pen and underline it. Yay for me! But I didn’t use it.
  • Achey. How the heck to you spell that? Word whipped out the red pen, of course, because it’s “achy.” But looking it up, I discovered that “Achey” is a commune in the Bourgogne region of France. Who knew? Now I want to go there, because I googled it and found an interesting place to stay… this is my life.
  • Imperative. As in, “Suddenly, it was imperative for her to hear from him.” Which is a terrible sentence anyway. Simplicity, dummy. And those adverbs need to go. “She needed to hear from him—now.”  (I know, I know, I overuse the em-dash. But in this case, a comma just isn’t strong enough to hold up the tail end of that thought.)

    And they lived happily ever after.

You see how it is? I’m definitely not trying to make anyone feel stupid. Writing mostly makes me feel stupid. For example, read a few pages of the book that reader reviewed–the one that made her feel stupid–and she really had a point. Sure, my heroine was a smarty-pants who liked to show off her education, but she was on the knife-edge of annoying as it was, and the big words pushed her over.

In the end, the only way I want readers to feel when they finish my books is good. Really good, not just about my book, but about the world, the people we share it with, and the way love surprises us when we least expect it. That’s the point of a romance novel.

So I’ll get back to writing one.