Wednesday, July 8, 2015

Six Reasons I Won't Water Down My Vocabulary

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  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. 

Tuesday, February 3, 2015

Flash Fiction: The Parlor Alexander the Great

So, I did another writing exercise to loosen the bonds of writer's block. Luckily for you (or unluckily, depending on your perspective), I decided to share it here! I did this one using the same title generator as last time.

"The Parlor Alexander the Great"
© A.L.S. Vossler 2015

Rae sat down in the luxurious armchair in Mrs. Mulway’s house. She always loved coming here; Mrs. Mulway had a constant supply of delicious cookies. Currently, Mrs. Mulway was in the kitchen boiling water for Rae’s tea.

“Are your parents still fighting, dear?” Mrs. Mulway’s voice came from the kitchen.

“Yeah,” Rae said. Mrs. Mulway didn’t know the half of it, but Rae didn’t want to talk about it. She hadn’t come over here to talk about her parents; she’d come here to get away from them. For just a little while, she could look over the nifty things in her elderly neighbor’s parlor. For just a little while, she could forget her parents’ screaming. For just a little while, she could forget the sound of her step-dad beating up her mom. She could forget how much she hated him.

The room was filled with all kinds of curios, some of which were under a considerable layer of dust. As Rae’s eyes traveled across the mantelpiece, she saw something new: a glass dome display case containing an 11-inch figurine, a little man who was dressed like he was from ancient Greece. Rae got up and stood on her tiptoes so that she could peer at the inscription that was on the base plate: Alexander the Great.

Rae tilted her head from side to side. He would have made a good friend for one of her Barbie dolls. Barbie probably would like his fancy armor. Rae glanced over her shoulder. Mrs. Mulway was busy in kitchen still, but the kettle was beginning to whistle. It would be less than a minute before she would come back into the room.

No. Stealing was bad, and Mrs. Mulway was nice. It wouldn’t be right.

Rae turned back to look at the figurine again. She almost screamed when she saw that the little man was pressed up against the side of the dome. “Help me.” His voice was muffled through the glass. “You have to help me.”

“What will you do if I help you?”

“There is nothing I cannot do, young mistress. I conquered all of Asia Minor ere my eighteenth birthday!” He put his hands on his hips and struck a confident pose.

A sense of power swept over Rae. She wasn’t sure what Asia Minor was, but she knew what Asia was: it was the biggest continent in the world. A man who could conquer Asia was the most powerful thing there was, especially if he was so tiny. Forget not stealing. Forget right and wrong. “You’ll do anything I ask you to?”

“By the gods, I swear I will.”

Rae gritted her teeth. “I want you to kill my step-dad.”

Criticism (constructive or otherwise) is welcome in the comments.

Did you enjoy this piece of flash fiction? Take a moment to share it on your favorite social network.

Monday, January 26, 2015

Flash Fiction: A Steam-Powered Rat out of Treasures

If you ever frequent my other blog, The Lonely Young Writer, you may have seen my post on generating ideas. In that post, I recommend using a random title generator such as this one, and then write for ten minutes using that title as the prompt for your story.

The result is, more or less, flash fiction.

I was feeling stuck yesterday, so I decided to loosen up the writing muscles a bit by doing this exercise. The title generator spit out this monstrosity of a story title: "A Steam-Powered Rat out of Treasures." I was a bit flummoxed at first, but highly intrigued. I ended up spending 25 minutes or so writing it, rather than just ten, but I think it was well worth it.

As the story is speculative in nature (it has steam-powered rats; of course it's speculative), and as I haven't posted anything here since November, I thought I would share it. Constructive criticism is encouraged and welcome.

"A Steam-Powered Rat out of Treasures"
© A.L.S. Vossler 2015

Pain is all it knows. It sits in its glass prison, waiting, watching, hoping that the water dish and food will be returned soon. Instead, the people pour water into the reservoir on its back and shut the lid.

It hates the thing on its back.  The thing on its back makes it hot, makes steam, and makes the metal legs move.  It misses its old legs, the legs it could feel with, the legs it could move by itself. But the metal legs whirr and click: whirr like the tiny rotary saw tied to its metal tail, click like the buttons on the controller that moves them. They reach in with big forceps and lift it out, checking to make sure the limbs work.

They say it cannot lose the fight this time.  It is better than last time.  They will surely win.

The fights are the worst.  Others similar to it, some with extra legs and big, sharp metal ears, or their jaws replaced with powerful vises, are put into the circle. It is made to fight with the others – fight with the others, or it is hurt by the others: scratched, cut, bitten, stabbed. Fight or die.

They say that it is time for the fight. They put it in the smaller cage and carry it away.

All it wants is to hide in the soft nest it once had; a soft nest lined with tufts of polyester and old gum wrappers. A warm and comfortable nest, surrounded by abandoned tops and jacks, a shiny tab from a pop can, balls of paper, a doll’s head, an old plastic ring: a beautiful nest filled with beautiful treasures.

A big voice echoes as they bring it into the arena.

“Ladies and gentlemen, get ready for the battle of your life: incumbent champion, The Big Cheese, faces the challenger, The Packrat! Will The Big Cheese’s reign of terror end, or will The Packrat be nothing but a smear of blood and fur on the floor?”

It hates the fights.

As always, constructive criticism is welcome in the comments.

If you enjoyed this piece of flash fiction, please take a moment to share it on your favorite social network. 

Image credits: The image is a compound of "Silhouette Mouse Sitting," courtesy of Piotr Siedlecki at, and "Steampunking It," courtesy of Randi Klugiewicz at