• Should You Use Obscure Words & Jargon?

    Posted Posted by David Duhr in Dos & Don'ts     Comments 20 comments
    Sep
    23

    Within the past month I’ve had conversations with two people expressing opposite viewpoints on a (not) hotly debated topic: Using big and/or obscure words in your writing.

    On one these people, Andrew, bemoaned the fact that so many writers, particularly in literary fiction, will sometimes spend an entire paragraph describing the intricacies of, say, the woodworking that went into making an end table.

    To paraphrase: “They use all this esoteric jargon to describe this thing, using all these words I don’t know, rather than just describing the thing in everyday language.

    “Or,” he continued, “not describing the thing at all. Why does it matter that there’s an end table, if it’s not significant to the story? And even if it is, who cares what sort of tools or whatever the woodworker used? It’s so masturbatory. Why do I need three pages about an end table when I can get the same effect with one line?”

    Andrew went on to talk about how annoying he thinks it is to come across words he doesn’t know, because he has to either stop reading and look up the word or continue reading without fully understanding what’s happening.

    But Daniel would call that lazy reading. “I’m reading to learn and be challenged, anyway,” he said. “Even if it’s fiction, I’m reading to learn about people and what matters to them. I love learning new words and the ins and outs of concepts and activities that are foreign to me.

    “Who cares if you have to pause to look up a word? Keep a dictionary with you when you read. It’s not that hard.”

    I find myself somewhere in the middle of this. I don’t mind looking up a word while I’m reading, if I’m curious about it, and I don’t really mind skipping a word if I’m not curious, so long as I understand the gist.

    Like Andrew, I want the description of the end table to be either relevant or quick, or nonexistent. What I mean is, if I’m going to read a three-page description of the woodworking that goes into a particular end table, I need it to add to my insight into the character(s) and/or story. Often that kind of thing is just showy — “Look at all these words I know and how prettily I put them together!” — and that’s a waste of my time.

    In my own writing, I often use too little description. I almost never get into detail about what my characters look like or portray their setting with any degree of color. It’s just not my forte; when I do try, the result is usually clunky and definitely not enlightening for the reader. My fiction tends to be about 47 percent dialogue, 48 percent action, and 5 percent color commentary. I wish those numbers were more balanced.

    But hey, you’ve got to write to your strengths. At least, to a degree. My strength is writing with simple, direct language. I can’t think of a time I’ve used a word that should make any average reader reach for a dictionary. But if I did do that, I’d want to do so with a purpose beyond “Look what I can do!”

     

    Your turn: As a reader, do you like coming across words you don’t know, or do you find it interruptive and/or unnecessary? Do you look up words or skip them? What do you think of flashy prose that doesn’t necessarily contribute to the characters and/or story?

    As a writer, what’s your approach? Keep it simple or teach them something and keep ’em reaching for the dictionary?

     

    WriteByNight co-founder David Duhr is copy editor and fiction editor at the Texas Observer and has written for books for the Dallas Morning News, the Iowa ReviewElectric Literature, and others.

    WriteByNight is a writers’ service dedicated to helping you achieve your creative potential and literary goals. We work with writers of all experience levels working in all genres, nationwide and worldwide. If you have a writing project you’d like help with or an idea to get off the ground, check out our coaching, editing, and publication services.

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    Jen T

    For me it depends on the book. Some writers seem to go out of their way to use obscure words, when everyday language would do the trick. However, with some stories they work well. I am currently reading The Zookeeper’s Wife and don’t believe I’ve ever read a story with so many obscure words, but they work! This is a novel rich in history, it’s set in WWII Poland, and though I have to frequently stop and look up words it doesn’t annoy me because they are key to understanding the history and especially the polish traditions. So I would… Read more »

    Joanne

    I don’t mind, as long as it’s not overdone. I once read a book in which I thought the author was just showing off, LOL. Usually, you can determine what the word means by context. If not, hey, look it up and increase your knowledge. Takes less than 5 mins. on-line! Many writers just naturally use regional jargon. When writing, you can’t stop and worry if someone doesn’t know what a ‘shotgun house’, for example, is. And sometimes age makes a difference. I’m mid-60’s and sometimes not sure what the youngest generation is saying, LOL. But, then, I’ve had people… Read more »

    Jerry Schwartz

    Two words, one name: Huckleberry Finn.

    David Duhr

    I’ve read a lot of Twain, even some obscure stuff, but have never read Huck Finn. Unless I did in high school and have forgotten. There’s something wrong with that, either way.

    Gene HUll

    David, it’s all a matter of voice. If the use of obscure words fits the voice of the writer, it is proper. Otherwise it stands out as deleterious to the writing.

    Barbara Mealer

    I don’t mind coming across words I don’t know if it isn’t on every page and it’s relevant to what is going on in the book. I write using words my editing program wants me to change. I don’t. I do feel people need to be challenged to use the bigger words which are more specific. As to those esoteric words no one understands, I’ll end up putting the book down and forgetting about it so I do my best to keep from using that type of language unless it is character specific. The thing to remember here is your… Read more »

    David M Inverso

    At 65, I know most obscure words. Still, I’m happy to occasionally look up a new one, especially if the word is crucial to the context. Three pages of arcane description of woodworking? Shades of Herman Melville’s or Patrick O’Brian’s soporific treatises on the minutia of sailing! I’d skip it unless the author made clear at the beginning that this description was pertinent to the story. In a related aside, I was at a party where a young man with a beautiful wooden kayak on his car kept cornering young women to wax poetic about how he made the boat.… Read more »

    david lemke

    When I read, about half the time I’m near a dictionary or I’m at the computer so I can look stuff up. I don’t mind finding a word I need to look up as long as its only a couple a book. How the hell else would we expand our vocabulary? When I write I salt in a few here and there. If I can either make it self-evident by the content or find a way to define it in dialogue, I will do that. I also use a lot of foreign words and slang and regional which is find… Read more »

    Walt M

    If the choice of vocabulary fits either the POV character or the voice of the writer, then it is a lot like using profanity. If it is natural for either, then honest portrayal requires it. However, if the writer’s ego is involved, then it should be watched carefully. The main job in story-telling is communication. Clear, direct language always finds a ready audience.

    Jerry Schwartz

    I have a large vocabulary. I think I’ve mentioned that I read a lot of Victorian and earlier English works; so I know plenty of arcane words ingested from books I’ve read. When it comes to using them, I try to be sparing unless it contributes to setting the atmosphere or painting a character. If I used ninnyhammer or flibbertigibbet, I would need a very good reason. Also, the meaning should be obvious from the context. I might use the phrase “musty tome” because it carries more freight than “old book.” I might have a character “wax loquacious” rather than… Read more »

    Victoria

    I heard at one time publishers were calling for larger words to be used. Then the obscured words became a fade. Me I think it’s just stupid. True
    e reads you just tap the word and you look it up. However when words are so old you have to hunt the meaning down because your e- reading can’t find the meaning ? Irritating. I that’s how the characters speak, fine. But don’t toss them in just because a publisher or editor says it’s needed.




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