Thursday, January 22, 2015

Dumbing Down

I first published this blog on Writers Who Kill (1/18/15). That blog attracts mostly writers who were generally appalled that I sold out as I had. The My Two Cents Worth blog has a wider audience, and I'll be interested what the reaction is.
I recently sent my current WIP Ant Farm to beta readers. I wanted to know if they had any problems with the manuscript. I received a number of insightful comments and suggestions.

Fortunately none of them caused a major rewrite, but two of my readers commented unfavorably about my word choices. A reader of my earlier books had also noted that she needed to use the dictionary more on my mysteries than any of the literature she normally read.

They were telling me that my vocabulary was too complex.

My reading friends are of above average intelligence and understood many of the words they questioned. Their point was that to appeal to a large audience, I should keep my books at the seventh grade reading level.

I do not have a particularly large vocabulary as such things go. In high school my class schedule for all four years had me taking English in first period. That meant I memorized the vocabulary words during homeroom, aced the tests, which were the first activity of the class, and then promptly forgot the definitions. The result of that short-term solution to learning vocabulary was evident in my preliminary SAT exam English score, which was not up to my standards. I spent the next year actually learning a bit of vocabulary and raised my verbal SAT from the 75th percentile to the 95th. I have since forgotten most of those words.

Apparently a few stuck, including these highfalutin word choices from the beta version of Ant Farm:

Cacophony, affect, prevaricate, gawp, suss out, Circean, macadam, tympani, arpeggio, conflated, cockup (English slang), penurious, Mesozoic, epigram, dendrite, diurnal, malapropism, victuals, incipient, peregrine, coterie, and puerile.

Most of these words have close enough synonyms that I could make easy substitutions. To remove others required me to do a bit of sentence reworking. A few words I left in. For example, I have a character whose essential being is to use phrases like “penurious skeezicks.” I now have another character define the term.

This paucity of vocabulary by ordinary readers was not always so. Tomorrow is the anniversary of Edgar Allan Poe’s birthday. Here are a few words he used in his works (taken from ):

Abase, abstruse, AEgipans, aigrette, apothegm, appetency, asphaltum, asseveration, athwart, avoirdupois, axiom

Those are just the “A” words.

Latin was required at my grandfather’s high school. He proclaimed those classes were the most useful ones he took. Knowing Latin roots and a spattering of Greek ones, he could figure out the meaning of most words. He did not graduate from college, but he would routinely correctly answer at least 90% of the monthly Reader’s Digest “Word Power” quiz.

Now, even though most of my readers are college graduates, I must temper my vocabulary. Steven King in his On Writing suggests that vocabulary is the top shelf of a writer’s toolbox. He stuck grammar on the same shelf, but we’ll leave that discussion for another day.

King says “the first rule of vocabulary is use the first word that comes to your mind, if it is appropriate and colorful.

Therein lies my problem: each of my highfalutin words was my first choice. I didn’t use “lie” in draft one and gussy it up to “prevaricate” in draft two. Nope, prevaricate is what I wrote from the get-go and that’s no lie.

As I was thinking about my problems with obscure vocabulary, I had a brief moment of relief (I wrote “respite,” but changed it to “moment of relief,” because of, you know, what I’m hearing about my word choices). Most e-readers have built in dictionaries that allow you to hold your finger over a word to automatically generate a pop-up with the definition.

My relief was short lived. I am the kind of guy who schleps to his Funk and Wagnalls’ 1600+-page dictionary to learn the meaning of an unfamiliar word and check its etymology, but we live in a world where instant gratification is the norm. Most of my readers do not have the same interest as I do in words and do not want to stop reading to learn something.

All of which explains why “cacophony” became “noisy” and I replaced “speaking with a flat affect” with some other set of words that indicate a lack of tonal expression. I can’t remember exactly what I wrote; I’ve blocked it out.

On this issue of vocabulary, I’ve sold out, I have. I’m okay with that. I’ll still get to use my twenty-five cent words in my first drafts, but from now on, I’ll start modifying them in the second draft.

~ Jim


  1. Hmmm. A little disappointing, but the middle road is not a bad idea. Not a sell out. Just moderating a little.

  2. Marian -- that's my take as well. As I do the final proofing I still see lots of words with multiple syllables. Definitively not at the Dick and Jane level.

    ~ Jim

  3. As an early reader, I didn't notice the "big" words. I use cacophony...hmmm. I grew up being told, if you don't know what a word is, look it up and then add it to your vocabulary. I spent an entire year finding a way to include surreptitiously in my day to day speech! Great post as always. I do wish you had some EASY share buttons - Twitter, FB, Pinterest etc.

    1. Hey Judy, were you surreptitious about including surreptitiously in your speech or did you hit them over the head with it?

      Aren't there easy share buttons for email, blog, twitter, facebook and pinterest right next to the comments at the bottom of the post?

      ~ Jim

  4. Duh! Yes I see the share buttons now. Shall post on Pinterest on my Blog Posts for Writers board. I must finish my tea before commenting in future! As for your other question, I was less than surrepticious in my approach :-)