Writer Wednesdays: $10 words and $1 words

I learned this phrase when I was working in journalism, editing a monthly magazine: “Don’t use a $10 word when a $1 word will do.”

What does that mean? Simple: don’t say “azure” when you mean “blue.”

Never say “azure”? Seriously? Of course not. It would depend on the setting. If you’re describing your male character’s gorgeous eyes, heck yeah, call them azure. Or beryl, cerulean, cobalt, indigo, navy, sapphire, teal, turquoise, or aquamarine. Describing a Kleenex box? Probably “blue” would cut it just fine.

But would I ever have a character masticate? Heck no. My characters will always chew, because anyone who masticates is usually a pompous ass. As is anyone who points his digit or engages in coitus or drives an automobile or pets his canine or lives in an abode or dresses in his best apparel. Now, maybe your character is a pompous ass; if so, by all means, have him masticate.

Sometimes beautiful words really set the tone of your book. If you’re describing a sunset, you probably wouldn’t say, “The orange and pink sky was pretty.” You would use words like nacreous or opalescent or titian or tangerine or rose or fuchsia or breathtaking or dazzling. These words match what you’re describing, and they show that this sunset is not a normal sky; the unusual words reiterate the unusual beauty. So don’t think you can’t use beautiful, “fancy” words when they fit.

Just don’t use them when they don’t fit the situation, when they aren’t necessary, or when they actually detract from what you’re writing.

For example, the NYTimes.com website lists the 50 words their readers most frequently had to look up, words like inchoate, profligate, solipsistic, obduracy, soporific, jejune, laconic, prescient, and verisimilitude.

As the website said, “We should remember that this is journalism, not philology. Our readers, smart as they are, are often in a hurry. They may be standing on the subway or skimming a story over breakfast. Let’s not make them work any harder than necessary.” http://afterdeadline.blogs.nytimes.com/2010/06/08/50-fancy-words/

Now that’s showing real concern for your readers.

Tumblr.com has a whole section on “fancy words.” According to the website, “William Faulkner, speaking of Ernest Hemingway, said, ‘He has never been known to use a word that might send a reader to the dictionary.’ Hemingway’s response? ‘Poor Faulkner. Does he really think big emotions come from big words?'”

So are you as a writer more like Faulkner or Hemingway? Do you think book readers should have better vocabularies? Should they love words so much  that they want to learn new ones? I think so to some degree, but your readers aren’t your students. They don’t want to go running to the dictionary every five minutes just to figure out what you’re saying. Here they are, enjoying a good book, and every few minutes they get yanked out of the story, out of this other world they’re trying to escape to, so they can go, “Huh?” They might feel talked down to, or worse, they might not think your book is worth the effort. They might run to the dictionary, stop halfway there when they notice another book just sitting on a table, looking tasty enough  to be read, and forget all about the dictionary. And your book.

If you’re not careful, you might end up looking pedantic. Or chappy. Or just generally like a big, fat know-it-all.

About alisaacarter

I am a writer of young adult novels, wife, mom of three, lover of animals, former magazine editor, reader of anything paranormal, and coffee fanatic.
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