I bring you another guest blog post. This one was written by Phil Rosen, and it is precisely what I envisioned when I set out to feature guest bloggers. It is an excellent piece, and more importantly, it teaches me something about writing. I feel compelled to wax-lyrical about this piece, but I shall let it do the work for me.
How your vocabulary can grow or shrink your audience
Despite the fantastical landscapes and stories they craft, writers are people too. And writers, like non-writers, enjoy when others applaud their intelligence and wit.
Writing isn’t done for the compliments, though human vanity takes them into consideration nonetheless. One way to accrue praise as a writer is through language. Language and vocabulary constitute two of many tools for writers; both can be used incisively or haphazardly.
Flexing a broad, cultured vocabulary can be enticing for a writer seeking credibility and status. Sentences strung together with complex, multisyllable words is something that can give off the perception of intelligence or sophistication. Whether or not this is an accurate perception, however, remains questionable.
Anyone that uses the word insalubrious instead of the word unhealthy must be really intelligent—right?
Readers—not writers—make the call here.
It isn’t self-evident that elevated diction makes for better writing. “Better writing,” really, depends on the audience. Whether an audience can read your writing, and whether they do read your writing, depends heavily on the language employed.
Does the audience understand what the writer is trying to communicate?
Is the story taking a backseat to the language being used?
How many of the words are actually necessary to tell the story clearly?
Language determines the audience. The bigger the words, the smaller the audience. The opposite is true too. Writing that can be understood by a seventh-grader can be understood by a massive audience (e.g. JK Rowling’s Harry Potter series).
This rule of thumb isn’t inherently negative. Many popular works are written for academic, higher-educated audiences. Complex language demands an elevated literacy and comprehension level. This type of language is less comprehensible; the audience for it is smaller and refined.
At the same time, outdated, literary words like beseech, effulgent or perchance can muddle a story and suspend the readers’ understanding if they are abused. Rather than following the narrative, the reader may find their nose stuck in a dictionary, playing the role of interpreter rather than audience member.
The message here isn’t to avoid using complex language, but a writer must realize that language can either limit or broaden an audience. An article or book written in simple, colloquial language, has a much larger audience. More people can access and digest it, compared to a more convoluted writing style.
In Politics and the English Language, George Orwell, one of the great writers of the 20th century, put a different angle to the issue,
“What is above all needed is to let the meaning choose the word, and not the other way around.”
Sounding smart — or, trying to sound smart — with words shouldn’t be prioritized over communicating meaning. It can come off pretentious and disingenuous, rather than intelligent. The meaning of a message should precede the word choice. Fixating on a single word or phrase rather than concentrating on the intended message is unfruitful.
Meaning can be lost when it isn’t the primary communication goal. Selecting words that best relay information opens up a story to all readers. Selecting words in an attempt to, instead, relay eruditeness can drown the reader in verbiage, therefore minimizing the audience.
The words you choose to include— or omit— impact who can and will read your writing. Language is what selects our audience; choose wisely.
Living well requires reading well. Check out Phil’s Essential Reading List for books to make you think, feel, and unlock your creativity.
Phil is a travel writer and editor based in Hong Kong. To see more of his ideas, visit his blog Phil’s Next Stop.
I particularly enjoyed ‘I Write for a Living at 22. Here’s How I Got Here‘. I am fascinated by people who find their calling in life, fascinated and jealous.
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