Almost consistently, the first thing I’m told when any given person critiques my work is that the vocabulary is too advanced, or that they had to look up some of the words.
Apparently, this is a bad thing.
While it makes sense not to use advanced language in children’s books and most young adult books, books which are aimed at high school upperclassmen and older should be free to use whatever type of vocabulary the author wants. Here is my reasoning:
1. Just because a word is uncommon doesn’t mean it should not be used.
The only way we learn new words is by being exposed to them. By refusing to use ‘big’ words because many people don’t know them, writers are purposefully limiting our audiences. We are basically assuming our audience is dumb, and that is a grave insult. Reading is supposed to expand the mind as well as entertain; writers are in fact in the position to educate. We should embrace this power, not fear it.
2. Sometimes the bigger, more uncommon word is the best word.
Hemingway once famously said that you shouldn’t use multiple words where one word will do. If a ‘big’ word replaces a concept that takes 10 smaller words to describe, the big word is obviously superior.
3. Readers are not idiots who need to be sheltered from the evils of big, scary vocabulary words.
People who read for entertainment are already most likely of a higher education level. When people come across a word they don’t know while reading, they do one of three things: look it up, guess the approximate meaning based on context, or ignore the word. The first two options allow you to help broaden your reader’s horizons, and who doesn’t want to do that? The third option isn’t bad either. People skip over stuff all the time when they read, and usually, a handful of words they didn’t know isn’t going to prevent them from understanding the tale at large.
4. Looking up the meanings of words is literally easier than ever.
It used to be that if you didn’t know a word, you would have to haul out a dictionary and leaf through the pages to find it. Nowadays, we have dictionary apps that allow you to look up words in less than sixty seconds, and almost everybody has a smart device with them at all times. If you don’t have an app, there’s Dictionary.com. Nobody has an excuse anymore, and pausing your reading to look up a word is not the end of the world. Yes, it might temporarily ‘jolt’ somebody out of the story for a minute, but if it allows them to learn something, that’s not such a bad thing. Most people will figure it out from context or just ignore it, so it actually doesn’t make much difference in the long run.
5. E-Readers have changed everything.
If you have a Kindle or a Nook, all you have to do is tap a word and the built-in dictionary tells you what it means. Let me say that again. All you have to do is frickin’ tap the screen. It could only get easier if you had dictionary software implanted in your brain! As more and more people are switching to eBooks, the excuses for purposefully limiting vocabulary become more and more ridiculous.
6. If somebody dislikes my writing because of my use of ‘larger’ vocabulary words, then they weren’t part of my target audience to begin with.
This is not to say that I write only for elite, erudite audiences. I write for people who are okay with expanding their minds. Heck, My Little Pony frequently uses words that kindergarteners wouldn’t know – like precipice, for example. If My Little Pony can do it when their audience is little children, then certainly I can do it when my audience is high school upperclassmen and older – or do you give more credit to little kids than you do to adults? Entertainment can expand our minds. Why should we try to curb that? The highest indicator of student success is teacher expectation. I see no reason why that can’t apply to readers and writers, too.
Furthermore, using ‘big’ vocab words does not limit my shot at becoming a successful writer. Best-selling author Stephen R. Donaldson is notorious for his use of ‘big’ words, as well as archaic words. And, as you might guess from the fact that I called him a best-selling author, he turned out to be a best-selling author even though he uses ‘big’ words.
I’m not going to water down my writing. Yes, most people don’t have higher than a sixth grade reading level. But it’s not like I hunt through a thesaurus trying to find the biggest word for everything. Most of my writing scores no more than a fifth grade level, according to the Flesch-Kincaid rating system. Yes, that’s even my works that have the big, scary vocabulary words in them!
So, no. I’m not going to cut out all the advanced vocabulary from my work. I’m going to fearlessly continue using whatever words I think are best for the situation, whether it’s a three year old character saying, “Mama, bells go ‘ding, dong’!’” or a wise old Oxford professor saying that he remembers the tintinnabulation of church bells. I don’t care if you didn’t know the word before you read my work. I don’t care if you choose to ignore it.
But if I both found the perfect word and helped you learn something new, then I don’t think any writer could ask for more.
What do you think? Is using 'big' words elitist and snobbish, or is it beneficial both to the writing itself and the readers? Sound off in the comments.