Letter From The Editor - Issue 68 - April 2019

Bookmark and Share

My Account
About IGMS / Staff
Write to Us


  Writing Advice by Mette Ivie Harrison
July 2016

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 when writing:

  1. Using the best word for the meaning I intend.

  2. Saying what I have to say in the fewest words possible.

  3. 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.

  4. Choosing a small word when it means the same thing as a big, Latinate one.

  5. Listening to the cadence of a sentence and making sure it’s melodious.

  6. Telling a story as clearly as possible.

  7. Getting out of the way of telling the story (transparency).

  8. Creating characters who are interesting and whose problems are relatable.

  9. Breaking any rule of the canon when it suits me and the story I have to tell.

  10. 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 here.

What I’m 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 want.

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

Home | My Account / Log Out | Submissions | Index | Contact | About IGMS | Linking to Us | IGMS Store | Forum
        Copyright © 2019 Hatrack River Enterprises   Web Site Hosted and Designed by WebBoulevard.com