Monday, October 11, 2010
What Did You Say?
I've always enjoyed building my vocabulary with interesting new words. One of my favorite Reader's Digest features is the one about building one's vocabulary. Spelling and vocabulary were two of my favorite subjects in school. Like many of you, I like to have a good knowledge of words and to be sure that I am using the best and most correct words when I am writing. However, I do find it somewhat annoying when I have to continually refer to a dictionary when I am reading.
The average reading level of adults in the United States is typically cited as being somewhere between sixth and ninth grade, depending on what source is citing the statistic. It's probably safe to say that the typical newspaper or popular magazine is pretty representative of the reading level of the average American. Many, probably most, modern fiction books are written at a level that is easily understandable to the average middle school student.
Just the other day I was reading an excerpt of a scholarly treatise on a philosophical topic. As I read--or tried to read--I couldn't help but shake my head in amazement at the lack of clarity due to the author's usage of obscure terminology. This author was probably writing for a very specific audience that may have been very familiar with the terms, but as a layman I was not impressed. This approach is common in academic writing, but could it be done better?
Okay, bad example--academia is a world unto itself. But thinking about literature or popular fiction, can an author capture a large readership with the appeal of large or uncommonly used words? In the nineteenth century, many of the authors deemed as "the greats" seemed to be able to write in a more educated sounding style probably because their audiences were often more educated. Later as the printed media began to reach a broader audience, the style and vocabulary became simpler.
I don't have much of a problem with this "dumbing down" of literature because I want to read more quickly without having to stop to figure out what I've just read. I'm more interested in straight-forward creative writing that gets the point across quickly and uniquely, I'll take an uncommon metaphor or a precisely detailed description as long as it doesn't bog down my reading, unless I'm reading some artsy piece which I am expecting to bog me down. There's nothing quite as bad as reading a fast paced action scene and having to stop to look up a word--give it to me straight and simple.
That's the way I try to write. Sure, I might throw in a more uncommonly used word now and then, but I try to do it in slow paced sections where thought is required anyway. Pedantic language is good for pacing. When you want the flow to go, go, go then terse stacatto and fluid phrasing makes the read move with the action you are trying to depict.
Not many of the writers who are reading this are trying to write scholarly tomes. If you are, I hope you receive a grant to pay your way. If you try to write over the heads of your potential audience to show them how brilliant you are, then you may find that your audience will be very limited. Most of the reading audience is not looking to be dazzled by erudition, but to be entertained by good writing that provides them with a rewarding experience of story and message.
"My aim is to put down on paper what I see and what I feel in the best and simplest way." — Ernest Hemingway
What's your take on this? Do you make an extra effort to add more obscure or less often used vocabulary to your writing? How would you classify your style of writing? Who are some of the writers you admire the most?