Using Big Words
I have a big prejudice when it comes
to reading book reviews. If a review tells me that the book is
“beautifully written” or really, if it says anything
about the language, I very rarely read it. If I do read it, it’s
because I see enough in the review to lead me to believe that there
is an actual plot, that the characters do something other than
navel-gaze while thinking thoughts full of beautiful words, and that
I will enjoy the book beyond the mere taste of it.
Come to think of it, maybe I’m
the same way about food. I’m not a fancy eater. I want regular
food with big flavors, and I don’t want to be told about how
delicious it is while I’m eating. I can figure that out myself,
thank you very much.
Maybe I’ve missed some of the
best books in the world. I probably have missed a few. But I’ve
reached a point in my life where I’m not trying to catch all
the great books in the world. I don’t think such a thing is
possible, not considering how many books are published each year in
English alone. I don’t give books more than about ten or twenty
pages to make me fall in love with them. I don’t have time to
waste, and while I used to believe that every book has something to
teach me, I don’t care to learn some lessons.
My writing isn’t a place where
I am trying to impress people anymore. I already did that. I played
that game in college and grad school. I know how to use lots of big
words. I studied critical literary theory and I waded through a ton
of Jacques Derrida. I read tiny-printed journal articles that two
hundred people in the world bothered with and I did it until my eyes
bled and my brain hurt. I managed to get through a dissertation
defense at Princeton University and I realized at the end of it that
it was a lot less about being smart than it was about following the
rules and figuring out what my professors wanted me to say.
I’m done with pleasing other
people with my writing. I gorged on that. I am now most decidedly
stomping on the grave of my dissertation with all those fancy words.
I lost my job at a university because I was writing fantasy for young
adults, and I’m not sorry about it. I’m not going to
apologize for wanting to write something that was fun for “children.”
Yes, I do think that my books are as good or better than the supposed
classics that I studied and taught to my students. Call me arrogant.
Call me a bad writer. I don’t care.
Here’s what I do care about
Using the best word for the meaning I intend.
Saying what I have to say in the fewest words possible.
Writing in a way that is easy to comprehend, instead of in a way that is perhaps decipherable if you try hard six times over.
Choosing a small word when it means the same thing as a big, Latinate one.
Listening to the cadence of a sentence and making sure it’s melodious.
Telling a story as clearly as possible.
Getting out of the way of telling the story (transparency).
Creating characters who are interesting and whose problems are relatable.
Breaking any rule of the canon when it suits me and the story I have to tell.
Making fun of characters who use big words just to sound high-falutin’.
Look, I don’t mind if you use
big words in your writing. I’m not going to stumble over them.
And there is certainly something to be said for not writing down to
your audience, but instead expecting them to do a little extra work
to grasp what you’re saying. I tend to try for that on a higher
than sentence level, but you can use vocabulary that you want.
Readers aren’t stupid. That’s not what I’m saying
saying is that you aren’t the star of the show as the writer.
You’re not writing this to prove something to your high school
English teacher (or to that professor who almost failed you on your
dissertation defense, for example). You’re a storyteller.
You’re an entertainer. You may be a teacher, but you’re
not the kind of teacher students are forced to listen to. They can
close your book any time they get bored, and there are a lot more
books they can pick up if yours doesn’t give them what they
So write for your own pleasure.
Write to show off your story and your characters, not to show off
your degrees. If you like to dance around on your own stage, fine, do
that. But don’t imagine it makes you a better writer. Use the
words that you need to use to tell your story. Or use bigger ones if
they suit you. Just remember that being able to use any word at any
time is more the sign of a superior writer than always using the word
that is most likely to be seen at the National Spelling Bee.
Read more by Mette Ivie Harrison