Tag Archives: word choice

100 agonizing words

I recently spent five excruciating hours at my keyboard and have less than 100 words to show for it.

Granted, they are some of the most important words for my next novel—second only to the title, I’d argue—but the fact that so much time yielded so little leads to believe that blurbs are the blight of the publishing world.

OK, I may have griped about the challenges of various writing exercises over the years:

Today, however, I’m prepared to go on record as saying all else pales in comparison to penning the dreaded book blurb.

Not to be confused with a full-fledged synopsis (the bare-bones summery generally reserved for agent and publisher queries), a blurb is a relatively small chunk of text tasked with huge responsibility: selling the idea of the book to readers.

Blurbs are often found on the back cover as well as the product description page of an online retailer. Working in conjunction with an engaging cover art and a snappy title, the successful blurb hooks the shopper, converting a prospect into a customer.

Long blurbs run the risk of revealing too much. (Technically, revealing the protagonist, antagonist, and main problem should suffice.) Conversely, if the blurb is too concise or vague, an amazing plot could come off as uninspired.

It’s a balancing act even tightrope walkers fear.

Cropped out book blurb from the back cover of If Souls Can Sleep

Here’s the book blurb from If Souls Can Sleep.

 

For my last book, If Souls Can Sleep, I limited the blurb to five sentences: two for an enticing headline, one to tease the protagonist and plot, and two to introduce the world of dream drifters. Because that blurb received praise from reviewers, I took a similar approach to Book Two of The Soul Sleep Cycle.

Without further preamble, here is the still-in-progress blurb for If Sin Dwells Deep:

 

She swore to defend the dreamscape.
But who will save her from herself?

When her mentor goes missing, straight-laced Allison must rely on her alter-ego, the rebellious goddess Syn, to rescue him. Trusting anyone at Project Valhalla could cost her her life, but fighting alone might damn her very soul.

 


 

If Sin Dwells Deep — a parallel novel to If Souls Can Sleep — exposes the secret world of dream drifters and the classified government operation charged with protecting the collective unconscious from those who would use their abilities to corrupt life, death, and what lies beyond.

 

Given how important these 100 words are, I welcome/encourage/demand feedback. Would that blurb motivate you to flip open the cover or, better yet, add to cart? If not, why?

Thanks in advance for your comments!

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A different class of writing

Spending time with young people can make you feel old, but it can also make you feel young, too.

I had the pleasure of talking with students at Waupun High School yesterday. My mission: to share my educational background, professional writing experiences, writing advice, and tips for getting published with the fledgling writers—in 45 minutes or less.

waupun-warriors

Despite my best efforts, I might have uttered “when I was your age” at least once.

In all seriousness, it was a very casual environment, and even though I did most of the talking, I couldn’t help but be a little inspired as we went around the circle, and the students told of their current projects and future ambitions.

Because I’ve been up to my (pointed) ears in editing a certain fantasy trilogy, I hope you’ll forgive me for taking a shortcut here by repurposing my notes from yesterday’s spiel—quasi-transcripts, if you will.

Hopefully, you’ll find a nugget or two of wisdom regardless of where you are on the path to authorhood.

My story

I started writing in earnest in high school. My fantasy tales bore a resemblance to the books I was reading at the time: DragonLance, Forgotten Realms…you know, books with dragons on the covers. Mostly, I engaged in world-building exercises and episodic storylines, though there was at least one false start to a novel

By senior year, I knew I wanted to be a novelist. At UW-Fond du Lac, I signed up for an independent study writing course. It turned out to be a one-on-one with a professor, where I delivered a chapter for her to critique each week. This was one of the most valuable college courses I ever took, and I learned an awful lot about the basics of storytelling, the importance of word choice—and how to meet deadlines.

In those two years, I wrote two-thirds of what would come to be Volume 1 of The Renegade Chronicles. When I transferred to UW-Milwaukee, I completed the first draft and then rewrote the entire manuscript from scratch senior year since my writing style—not to mention skill level—had dramatically changed since freshman year.

I submitted chapters of my book for various writing workshops, and peer review also proved incredibly valuable. (Though in one class, I had to convince the professor that genre fiction had merit before we were allowed to present fantasy, sci-fi, romance, etc.)

Meanwhile, I took as many literature and linguistics classes as I could. Beyond English courses, I signed up for philosophy, psychology and a ton of history courses. An all-too-common adage dictates one should write what one knows. Ergo, the more you know, the more you can write about.

I somewhat regret I didn’t take any journalism, marketing, or radio/TV/film classes. At the time, I wanted only to write fiction, so none of those related disciplines appealed to me. Then again, I picked up many of those skills later in life.

After graduating with a bachelor’s degree in English with an emphasis on creative writing, I taught for a year in China, where I had my favorite job title to date: foreign expert. While overseas, I wrote a sequel. I also tried to publish a short story I had written in college (to no avail) and researched agents to represent my fantasy novels.

When I returned to the U.S., I got cracking on Volume 3—while racking up rejections for Volumes 1 and 2.

I was fortunate to find an entry-level position at a newspaper. As a news clerk, I mostly was responsible for formatting lists, such as marriage licenses and school lunch menus. (Have you ever questioned the proper spelling of “tri-tater”?) I typed up letters to the editor, too.

But I also got to do some proofreading and wrote an article here and there. In less than I year, I was promoted to entertainment writer and editor. I picked up a slew of skills in the newsroom—writing and proofing using AP style, headline writing, lead writing, pagination/layout, the basics of photo editing.

Most importantly, I learned the virtues of brevity.

After a few years, I went to the “dark side”—public relations and marketing. At UW-Oshkosh, I wrote press releases, coordinated interviews with faculty and staff, wrote articles for the online news publication and the alumni magazine, became a wiz at Word Press and other content management systems, taught myself project management, and supervised student interns.

I learned even more when I became an account executive at BrownBoots Interactive, including more website skills, search engine optimization (which injects a lot of science into the art of writing), writing for TV and radio commercials, managing multi-channel marketing campaigns, estimating on projects, blogging, and much more.

That’s right, the guy who couldn’t care less about journalism, public relations, and marketing in college grew to appreciate them and, if I do say so myself, excel at them.

But my dream has always been to be a novelist…

About 10 years ago, I joined Allied Authors of Wisconsin. Because I couldn’t get an agent to bite on The Renegade Chronicles, I decided to go outside of my comfort zone and wrote a sci-fi novel that got very good feedback from my beta readers. An agent, who is also a member of AAW, elected to represent If Souls Can Sleep.

And because I didn’t learn my lessons with The Renegade Chronicles, I wrote a sequel before selling the first one.

My wife and I wrote a children’s chapter book to test the waters with self-publishing. (More on that here and here.) But between a full-time career and family obligations, I always felt as though my fiction got short shrift.

Earlier this year, I decided I to take a chance and put my fiction on the front burner. I transitioned to a new role at the agency to allow for larger pockets of time for writing and editing fiction. I created a business plan and am committed self-publishing The Renegade Chronicles in 2016.

My long-term goal—my dream—hasn’t changed remains the same: I want to make a living writing fiction.

Writing advice

There’s no shortage of writing advice out there (and sometimes tips contradict). But here is some advice my mentors gave me “back in the day”:

  • Margaret Weis: “Treat your writing like a job. Write on a schedule.”
  • R.A. Salvatore: “If you can quit, then quit. If you can’t, you’re a writer.”

I’ll add a few of my own observations to the mix:

  • Embrace a variety of life experiences—everything is fodder for your writing.
  • Learn as much as you can about the industry and gain related skills. Even traditionally published authors have to be business-minded marketing experts.
  • Write as many different kind of things as you can because you might be surprised at what you’re good at…and what you might enjoy.
  • Don’t turn your nose up at any writing gig—even if it’s the company newsletter—because everyone has to start somewhere.
  • Get feedback from others (e.g., writers groups, online forums) but realize that not all critiques are created equal. Not everyone is your target audience, and ultimately, it’s your story.
  • Always write what you love and do whatever you can to hold onto that passion.
  • Most importantly, don’t give up.

Tips for getting published

A lot has changed since I was in high school. Back then, you were supposed to write and publish short stories (which I sucked at), and you couldn’t hope to publish a novel without an agent. Also, self-publishing was for losers, and vanity presses that preyed on amateur writers made it expensive, too.

Today, self-publishing is both respectable and profitable. Print-on-demand means publishing a book is relatively inexpensive, though there are outside costs like proofreading and cover design. The biggest challenge is getting noticed above the noise.

As someone who is still on the path to publication, I don’t have any surefire secrets for becoming a bestseller. I do, however, have a couple of tips:

1. Don’t publish before you’re ready. After more than a decade between drafts, I’m now hacking apart The Renegade Chronicles, and they’ll be much better for it. And do your homework to avoid wasting your time…or getting sued.

2. Don’t be afraid to take chances. By the time you’re ready to publish a novel or a comic book or your memoirs, a lot is going to have changed. It’s never been a better time to be a writer, but it’s also the Wild West of publishing right now. If you want to get noticed, you have to experiment.

If you follow the crowd, you’ll always be behind.

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Something scary for Halloween: my poetry

I’m not a poet…and don’t I know it.

If that didn’t elicit a groan, then maybe a line or two from “Rain,” a poem I wrote in college, will:

Portrait of Edgar Allan Poe

Edgar Allan Poe’s poetry also is scary — albeit in a good way. | Photo via Wikimedia Commons

The city’s underbelly is growling

All around, the rumbling of the buses echoes the thunder in the sky

I hear the mobile beasts around me

As I wait to be eaten and excreted someplace new

Is your brain bleeding yet?

Despite having written between one and two million words to date, only a handful of them were spent in pursuit of poetry.  And whenever I did venture from the comfort zone of fiction, it was typically because a teacher assigned it.

That’s how “Triumvirate”—a three-part poem exploring body, mind, and soul as self-governing entities—came to be. “Triumvirate” is one of my better ones, I think, despite its rhyming, sing-songy nature. Here’s an excerpt from the Mind section (stanza?):

Liaison and foe of Body and Soul,

As real as face-numbing wind;

Tainted by reason, encouraged by spirit

Baffled by blessing and sin.

Not stellar, sure, but it didn’t have you contemplating suicide, I hope.

The aforementioned “Rain,” on the other hand, was a tongue-in-cheek attempt to capture something very mundane in a melodramatic manner. I don’t think it was a serious attempt at poetry.  At least I hope not.

Confession: I don’t understand poetry.  I never have.  As a child, I didn’t gravitate toward Shel Silverstein’s collections at the library.  I just never understood what the fuss was about.  And that attitude didn’t change as I got older and studied them as part of junior high, high school, and college curricula.

Oh sure, some poems could be clever or funny or haunting, but they always struck me as somehow…unsubstantial.  A treat for the tongue, perhaps, but not the hardy nourishment one gets from digging into, say, a novel.

I suppose I’ve always craved story…

Oh, I know poems can tell a story.  But so many of them don’t seem to.  Or maybe I’m simply too obtuse to grasp the hidden narrative lurking elusively between the lines.  More likely, I’ve been approaching them all wrong, coming to poetry with the same expectations as I do prose.

Maybe poems aren’t meant to be mysteries that can be unraveled by reason.  Maybe ambiguity of meaning can be an asset, not a flaw.  Maybe getting the reader to simply feel something is a worthy goal in of itself.

Of course, poetry is a very broad term, and I’d be lying if I said that the genre doesn’t appeal to me unilaterally.  Epic poems, for instance, combine the creative use of language usually associated with poetry with a plain-faced plot.  In fact, the Alliterative Morte Arthure, a Middle English poem that explores the climax of the Arthurian legend, motivated me to write an alliterative poem called “Solitude”—the name of which was inspired by another old poem, “The Wanderer.”

In my humble opinion, the best poetry contains something of a story, and the best fiction borrows from the eloquence and expressiveness of poetry.  It doesn’t have to be an either/or scenario. Artistic turns of phrase, the rhythm and flow of sentences, attention to sensory details—the finer trappings of poetry certainly can (and perhaps should) be transposed to prose.

At some point I might pick up that book of E.E. Cummings’ poems off our family bookshelf, but I doubt I’ll spend any serious time composing poetry of my own.

So rather than subject you to any more tortured verses authored by my own hand, I’ll end this post by sharing this delightful (if disturbing) poem penned many years ago by someone in my family who’s had more practice with the genre: Kate Williams, my mother. It’s one of my favorites:

Be Kind to Your Brainless Friends,
They Might Have Ants in Their Heads

One night when I was sleeping, but not in my bed,
millions of little black ants got into my head.
They crept in through my ears, my nose, and my eyes
while I lie sleeping under the summer sky.

They chomped, they chewed, they nibbled, they crunched,
they ate my brain like it was their lunch.
Now my brain is gone and I have instead,
little black ants living inside my head.

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Watch out for these five overused words

When a fledgling writer first takes a stab at the craft, he or she is apt to make a few fundamental mistakes.

One such error is assuming that the more words one uses, the better.  Perhaps it stems from penning so many papers in high school and college.  After all, most essay assignments come with word or page quotas.  A student quickly learns to cram in filler words to make sentences extra robust.

The words "and then."

“And” and “then” can cause problems on their own. But when they team up, watch out!

And don’t get me started on those lovely long words that take up half a line all on their own!

Academic writing aside, most folks who concentrate on fiction and creative nonfiction strive for the opposite.  Simple, straightforward syntax rules the day not only because the writing reaches a broader audience, but also because even advanced readers tend to prefer tight, fast-paced prose to a narrative that is drags due to excessive words.

(Don’t get me wrong.  There’s nothing wrong with challenging the reader.  But few people gravitate toward fiction that reads like a dissertation.  It’s as much a matter of tone as a matter of composition.)

The first step to tidying up a manuscript is finding the words, sentences, and even paragraphs that impede a reader’s progress.  A writer must measure every phrase carefully and decide whether it moves the story forward—either by advancing the plot or by presenting pertinent information about characters, setting, and so forth.

As with most aspect of writing, the devil is in the details, and often it’s the smallest, most innocuous words that clutter up clauses.

Here are five words that appear more often than necessary and should be the first on any writer’s chopping block when tightening up his or her work:

Then

“I did something.  And then I did something else.  And then…  And then…”

The problem with “then” is that it doesn’t have much intrinsic value.  Readers assume that, unless otherwise indicated, the actions occur in chronological order.  The event in one sentence precede the events in subsequent sentences.  So in most cases, “then” is redundant.

Despite its semantic shortcomings, “then” occasionally can be helpful in terms of sentence structure variation, rhythm, and clarification.  Just be sure to use it sparingly.

Note: if writing in the present tense, the same goes for “now.”

Also

Like “then,” “also” seldom adds anything meaningful to a sentence.  It belongs to a family of adverbs that show a relationship between ideas, but like its relatives “both” and “either,” “also” can quickly cause sentences to slog, especially if used habitually.

Again, a reader understands that when two thoughts are separated with a conjunction—particularly “and”— the second item also belongs in the collection.  The same is true for the context among sentences.  There’s seldom a need to start a sentence with “also,” as demonstrated below.

Also, “too” and “as well” are just “also” in disguise.

And

I challenge anyone to write a story of any substance that completely avoids the word “and.”  The result, I posit, would be awkward at best.  But while conjunctions like “and,” “or,” and “but” are essential to the English language, “and” can become a crutch like the others on this list.

Notice my what-not-to-do example for “then”: “I did something.  And then I did something else.  And then…  And then…”

Not only does “and” like to tag team with “then” to create redundancy, but also it encourages run-on sentences.  “And” also appears when a writer lists a series of items or actions.  While there’s nothing inherently wrong with series, too many of them can make a scene sound more like it belongs in an instructional manual than a manuscript.

Consider this example:

“I grabbed my coat, opened the door, and slammed it behind.  On my way to work, I stewed over the argument I’d just had with my girlfriend, swore at the sluggish traffic around me, and fumed at the thought of what awaited me at work.  Frustrated and weary, I stomped to my desk.”

That’s three “ands” in three sentences, and while there’s no crime in that per se, the idea of grouping actions—and emotions—gets old very quickly.  Yes, combining the verbs “grabbed,” “opened,” and “slammed” in a single sentence is quicker than dedicating three separate sentences to the motions, but employing too many of these “grocery lists” grows wearisome.  Either space them out or determine which actions can be cut—and likely remain implied.

(For that matter, we don’t even need “frustrated and weary” in the last sentence because we already know the protagonist’s mood from prior sentences, and “stomped” communicates the emotions effectively on its own.)

Said

When it comes to speech tags, “said” is very much in vogue.  In fact, novice writers often get scolded for using fancy variations, such as “stated,” “declared,” “reported,” and “told.”

And yet, when a writer intersperses action or deftly uses voice—via word choice, sentence structure, etc.—to otherwise indicate the speaker, “said” just gets in the way.

More on that here.

All in all, reducing the number of speech tags is an easy way to reduce the word count and pump up the pace of dialogue.

Was

“Was”—and “is,” if you prefer the present tense—can present like a plague if you’re not wary.  Just because any given sentence can contain some form of “to be,” doesn’t mean it should.

Action verbs are always stronger than copular verbs.

Let’s look at that last sentence as an example.  I could have said, “Action verbs always dominate a sentence, whereas copular verbs simply connect a subject to the predicate.”  The semantics aren’t identical, but the latter gave me an opportunity to be more specific and more creative.

Another example:

“I was so hungry that I ate the whole box.” vs. “I devoured the entire box.”

Not only does the second sentence lose a few unnecessary words, but also it is arguably more impactful because it uses “devoured” instead of “was so hungry.”

Beware of the copular verb’s clever cousins, modals: “can,” “could,” “might,” “must,” “should,” etc.  Used in moderation, copulars and modals are harmless; however, when relied upon too regularly, they are bound to let you—and your readers—down.

I suspect every writer has his or her own stable of overused words or a particular construction he or she employs too often.  How often is too often?  However many times it takes a reader to become distracted by it or otherwise bogged down by it.

For instance, I used the “not only…but also” sentence structure three times in this relatively short post.  If it didn’t serve such a fine example of my final point, I’d likely go back and find other ways to express the same thoughts.

Another example from my fiction writing is the word “eyes.”  For some reason, whether giving a character’s description or trying to convey emotion during dialogue or other action, I default to calling attention to people’s eyes.

But now that I’m aware of this tendency, I always stop after typing the word “eyes” and decide if there’s a better way to proceed, possibly by employing a different sensory description.

The five little words outlined above don’t do much harm on their own.  Their danger comes from numbers.  Pruning a handful of these small words from a short story or avoiding them throughout a novel can add up and result in a leaner, meaner manuscript.

The best writers don’t jack up their word counts with filler words.  They understand that true skill is conveying meaning with fewer words, not more.

Did I miss any other common offenders?  Do you have a literary pet peeve that (figuratively) jumps off the page and pokes you in the eye?  Let me know below! 

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Friends and family of writers, beware

A fiction writer’s rap sheet can get quite extensive.

Perhaps pride is our biggest flaw.  The stories in our heads, well, not only do we think they are worth our time to tell, but also we think they are worth your time to read.  Not only that, but you really ought to pay for them, too.  Oh, and let me sign that first edition hardcover for you.  You’re welcome.

Of course, no one can force you to read a book…excepting literature professors.

Unfortunately, we’re also chronic kleptomaniacs.  Joseph Epstein said, “Every writer is a thief, though some of us are more clever than others at disguising our robberies.”  He was referring to minor counts of plagiarism—an apt description, a novel turn of phrase, a treatment of syntax that (with a minor tweak) we could pass off as our own brilliant invention.  We read like crazy so that our writing becomes better through osmosis and untraceable tricks.

That kind of stealing is mostly harmless, I suppose.  Certainly, it doesn’t really affect you non-writers out there.  So what if after reading Tolkien, I suddenly start composing quasi-archaic run-on sentences?  Or if, post-Palahniuk, my penchant for short and incomplete sentences explodes?  No harm, no foul to the general populace.

However, the thievery doesn’t end there.

As much as we weavers of fiction would like to believe that our brains are the birthplace of magnificent, magical, and altogether unique ideas, that’s simply not true.  A wiser man than I once said, “There is nothing new under the sun.”  It’s worse than that, though:  The human mind is incapable of unadulterated innovation.  We can’t create, only assimilate; can’t conceive, only reconstruct, rearrange, and revise reality as it already exists around us.

That’s where all of you unsuspecting sources of inspiration come in.  We’re always watching, you know.  We need material.  Anyone can throw together a character.  Flip a coin, roll the dice, or just jot down the first thing that comes to mind, and you’ll end up with a fake person with his or her own hair and eye color, a height, a weight, an occupation.  But in order to assemble a multi-faceted human being, you need much more than a random combination of traits.  We writers crave details.

And surely you won’t mind if we steal a few from you, our closest friends, our family members, hapless passersby…

There was a student in my women’s lit class whose name I never learned.  I had no occasion to ever speak to her, but I haven’t forgotten her eyebrows.  By my best approximation, each one of her perfectly symmetrical eyebrows formed its own 60-degree angle.  I haven’t yet given one of my characters 60-degree eyebrows, but someday I just might.

What’s-her-name will never know if I steal one of her body parts for my fiction.  But other crimes are harder to hide.  Names, for instance.  If I use your name, please don’t read too much into it.  Just because you share a first or last name with a character doesn’t mean he or she is based in any way on you.  (Maybe I just like the sound of the syllables.  Or maybe your name means something you never even realized.)

The same goes for physical characteristics.  That may be your nose, your tattoo, your scar, or, yes, your eyebrows on the page, but it’s somebody else’s accent, hobby, and hometown to complete the composite.

Honestly, I can’t say whether you should be honored or horrified.  What I can say is that I’m grateful for the insight about your career, the catchphrase you didn’t know you had, the mannerism that transforms my one-dimensional extra into a rich, memorable supporting character (though there is danger in that…).

Don’t worry.  We would never exploit your flaws.  Your secrets—bad or banal—are safe with us.  In fact, we take great pains to camouflage our crimes.  We want the world to think we came up with it all ourselves, remember?  Anyway, there is honor among thieves.  We won’t tell anyone that the ugly couch in chapter three belongs to you or that your foibles have given a certain antagonist his softer side.

We’ll never tell…if you won’t.

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One million words…in theory

A few years back, the English language spawned its one millionth word.

Since words are the tools of a writer’s trade, one might assume the ever-expanding nature of vocabulary would result in greater creativity for the wordsmith.  Sadly, this is not the case.

Late last century, Dr. Edward B. Fry developed an extensive list of the most common words used when teaching reading, writing and spelling.  His list—called The Fry Instant Words—has been a boon to understanding fluency and reading comprehension.  While helpful for educators, Fry’s findings can be a little depressing for anyone who yearns for verbal variety.  Consider the following:

  • 25 words make up approximately one-third of all items published.
  • 100 words comprise approximately one-half of all of the words found in publications.
  • 300 words make up approximately 65% of all written material.

Now it’s possible that this phenomenon has everything to do with natural linguistic evolution.  Natural selection inevitably takes a toll.  For example, if a tool, animal, or article of clothing no longer exists, there isn’t much of a need to keep the word for it around.  Because English borrows words form a multitude of other languages, redundancy, too, might results in one option going out of style, even as another rises to prominence.  One could argue that we don’t need so many synonyms.

One could also argue that shedding a few superfluous words here and there makes a language more streamlined and effective and that the stats above don’t necessarily imply a “dumbing down” of the written word in modern times.

I disagree.

According to “The Hot Word,” (a dictionary.com blog), scientists have discovered that in the past 40 years, more words have died than during any other period going back to 1800.  Meanwhile, fewer new words are being introduced into our lexicon.  Ironic, isn’t it, that our advent into the Information Age is underscored by a mass extinction of the building blocks of knowledge?

The aforementioned article suggests the invention of spell-check software shoulders some of the blame.  But, really, we humans are lazy creatures.  Why learn eight different words that mean the same thing if we can get away with knowing only one or two of them?  Why tap into the full one million words if less than a thousand (seemingly) suffice?

Writers know it’s not as black and white as that.  There are subtle nuances among word choices.  Implied and inferred tones.  Also, who wants to use the same noun three sentences in a row?  And, damn it, sometimes a word feels right.

Take the word “prolix.”  A wonderful word, all things considered.  But I’m secretly scared to use it because I don’t know if the majority of today’s readers know what it means.  So I usually default to “verbose.”  And, depending on my medium and audience, I might forgo that word too, swapping in a more commonplace substitute such as “effusive” or “long-winded” or “wordy.”

But why should I dumb it down?

Simply put, communication requires comprehension.  If I use words few people are familiar with, I risk fracturing—perhaps irrevocably—the link between writer and reader.  When I was a journalist, the rule of thumb (or is it “rule of dumb”?) was that where word choice was concerned, we shouldn’t aim higher than a sixth-grade reading level.

Sixth.

Grade.

I posit that we speakers and readers of English are more lazy than ignorant.  Back in the day, if a person encountered an unfamiliar word, he or she would have had to seek out a dictionary (likely propping up a problematic windowsill or buried in the back of the closet next to Scrabble) and possibly injure his or her back while lugging the cumbersome tome back to one’s preferred reading nook.  A chore to be sure!

But today, we have a dozen or more free dictionaries that can be accessed from any Internet-connected device, including laptops, e-readers, and that most personal of personal computers: the never-far-from-your-pocket smartphone.

Writers who think they are helping the reader bypass perfectly useful words in favor of most popular counterparts are mistaken.  If writing—any type of writing—is meant to inform and in some way educate a reader, then we are doing more harm than good by omitting challenging words.

Perhaps the more troublesome truth isn’t that dumbing down our words makes reading newspaper articles, blogs, and novels easier, but rather it makes writing them easier.  It’s as much a paradox as a perpetuating cycle.  The lazier writers allow readers to be, the lazier we, too, become.  A lose-lose situation for both parties, and the greatest casualty is not some collection of words, but the fundamentals of expanding human knowledge.

Maybe you’re thinking it’s not as dark and dismal as I make it seem.  After all, an artist can paint a fantastic piece with far fewer than 1,000,000 colors.  So why would a writer need a full million words?  He doesn’t.  Not really.  But more than a few hundred would be nice.

(By the way, if you thought my reference to “one million words” in the headline suggested this post would reveal why I chose that name for my blog, then you’ve gotten a taste of different literary trick: the red herring.  Maybe next time!)

—Editor’s note: the real reason I went with “One Million Words” can be found here.

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