Tuesday, March 18, 2014

Word Choice and Voice

Any word you have to hunt for in a thesaurus is the wrong word. There are no exceptions to this rule.   Stephen King

Don't use words too big for the subject. Don't say 'infinitely' when you mean 'very'; otherwise you'll have no word left when you want to talk about something really infinite.   C.S. Lewis

Say all you have to say in the fewest possible words, or your reader will be sure to skip them; and in the plainest possible words or he will certainly misunderstand them.    John Ruskin

Word choice. Which words do I choose and use? Why?

I’ve had mixed reviews from critique partners about vocabulary level in my various works. The range is from “I had to look up words. That interrupts the story. Lose the big words.” to “I love that you don’t insult my intelligence by talking down to me. Keep using vocabulary that challenges me.”

Truly, it is not that I am trying to demonstrate my facility with logo-gymnastics, but that’s the way I talk. The first word that comes to mind is what I type. I don’t sit with the thesaurus open and at the ready to insert an arcane word in place of a pedestrian one. Rather, why use a phrase when a single word would do?

Unless that language level is inconsistent with the character. Well, duh! That elusive characteristic of "voice" is, in part, signaled by word choice. Language identifies us.

When I have a character with education, why not have her use the language level she would use in real life? Oh, I know that if she sprinkles too many high-vocabulary words in, she will distract. But where is the line between voice illustrated through language level and interrupting the reader. I hate to think that readers’ vocabulary levels are so low they would avoid my great (!) books just because I have a character using less common words.

I hate to think that good vocabularies belong only to literary fiction. Genre fiction, commercial fiction—why can’t those characters be literate as well?

Okay. I do have a good vocabulary. I admit to being proud of that. But demonstrating language facility is not, should not be, tantamount to bragging or driving away readers. I remember the first time I read Sophie’s Choice (William Styron). Not only did the story fully engage me, but I had to look up a couple of words in the dictionary. Me, looking up words! I loved it!

I am a word game nut. I read the dictionary for fun. My favorite all-time Christmas present from DH was the compact version of the Oxford English Dictionary. Etymologies make me swoon. We’re always saying, “Let’s look it up.”

I LOVE WORDS! That passion showed through in my work with kids over 39 years. What a legacy to pass on, that words are cool. Why can’t I do that in my writing as well. In Streetwalker (my erotic romance), I have a character obsessed with words even though she is not educated.

So, Dear Reader, hang on for the ride. The vocabulary level in my works may be higher than some. But when I write, the right word comes to mind. I don’t go “dictionary diving” to find an obtuse way to say the same thing. If you might need a dictionary once or twice, enjoy the joy of words and the way they roll around on your tongue and in your mind.

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