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August Interviews

8/5 Lucy Burdette, The Key Lime Crime

8/12 Maggie Toussaint, All Done With It

8/19 Julie Mulhern, Killer Queen

8/26 Debra Goldstein, Three Treats Too Many

August Guest Bloggers

8/8 Leslie Wheeler

8/15 Jean Rabe

August Interviews

8/22 Kait Carson

8/29 WWK Authors--What We're Reading Now


Congratulations to our two Silver Falchion Finalists Connie Berry and Debra Goldstein!

Paula Gail Benson's "Cosway's Confidence" placed second and Debra Goldstein's "Wabbit's Carat" received Honorable Mention in the Bethlehem Writers Roundtable 2020 short story contest. Congratulations, Paula and Debra!

Susan Van Kirk's Three May Keep A Secret has been republished by Harlequinn's Worldwide Mystery. The WWK interview about the book can be accessed here. We're so glad another publisher picked up this series.

KM Rockwood's "Burning Desire," and Paula Gail Benson's "Living One's Own Truth," have been published in the anthology Heartbreaks & Half-truths. Congratulations to all of the WWK writers.

Please join Margaret S. Hamilton's Kings River Life podcast of her short story "Busted at the Book Sale" here. Congratulations, Margaret!

Look Margaret S. Hamilton's short stories in the new Mid-Century Murder by Darkhouse Books. Margaret's story is titled "4BR/3.5BA Contemporary."

Grace Topping's second novel in Laura Bishop staging series, Staging Wars, was released by Henery Press on April 28th. Look for the interview here from April 29th.

Annette Dashofy's 10th Zoe Chambers mystery, Til Death, will be released on June 16th. Look for the interview here on June 17.


Sunday, January 18, 2015

Dumbing Down

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 http://poestories.com/wordlist.php ):

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


KB Inglee said...

My rule for such words (and I use a cornucopia of them) is that if the reader knows what the sentence means, don't change them. If the reader has to know for the sentence to make sense, change them.
Personally I love them and read with a dictionary nearby and the OED on the shelf.

E. B. Davis said...

KB makes a good point.

I normally don't speak in "A" words, and I am an auditory learner and writer. I write what I'm hearing in my head (yes, I do hear voices!). I think many writers operate the same way except they are seeing the scene, whereas I'm hearing it. My characters aren't known for their big words so I usually don't have a problem. They have no time to wax poetic while demons follow them.

My problem is when I choose a word that the beta reader disagrees with--everyone understands the meaning of the word, but they don't like the sound of the word or think it is awkward even when I think is it the right and appropriate word. Small words can take readers out of a story as much as words they don't know.

Back to KB's point. Dumbing down your books may force you to decide if you want readers or a dusty tome sitting on a shelf. First, we have the problem of fewer and fewer readers. While those readers remaining may be "dumb," at least they exist. I'm glad you've acquiesced. You needed your rant. I must rant sometimes, too (as you know!). No matter how much we want our work to be our own, we must write to market. We're professionals!

Gloria Alden said...

Jim, maybe it was wise to change a few words, but I don't think you need to dumb down your work, especially if it's the way your main character thinks and talks. I just finished my first Aaron Elkins book, and his main character, an anthropologist uses very big words like describing a character where he "was ready to kick the oleaginously reluctant Frawly . . ." and other words dealing with words only someone familiar with his field or an archeologist would understand. He's written many books and now that I've found him, I was so delighted with his work, I'm going to read more. It seems to me that most people can get the general idea of what a word they're unfamiliar with just from the sentence it's in. If they want to look it up in a dictionary, okay, if not they can go on with the story quite well, in my opinion.

Sheila Connolly said...

I've always loved words and have been collecting them all my life (yes, my grade-school classmates thought I was strange). But watching Jeopardy makes it clear that a lot of people didn't get the same education that I did.

Several years ago I submitted a first chapter to a writers contest. The first paragraph included the word "obfuscate" (and I applied it to a lawyer's behavior). I got lots of flack for using such an obscure word--and of course, after that I was seeing it everywhere. I still think it was the right word to use.

But I'd like to add a caveat. I write about three series protagonists. Two are college-educated, and the third is younger and blue-collar, with only a high school education. Obviously the last one would not use fancy language in ordinary speech, but I've also found that I don't want to use multi-syllable words even in writing about her actions and thoughts. She wouldn't prevaricate, she'd waffle or waver. Does that make sense?

So please don't dumb down your vocabulary, or we'll lose some great words forever.

KM Rockwood said...

I like to trust my readers and their intelligence. On the other hand, I want them to be able to read what I write without having to stop and look up words. Anything that takes the reader out of the story is not good!

My characters are not usually well-educated, so my problem runs in the other direction sometimes, slang that some people may not know. I listen to my beta readers and try hard to make it understandable while leaving in the "flavor."

I took Latin in high school (required) and it does help with English vocabulary.

Jim Jackson said...

KB -- Your rule is a decent one as long as readers don't stop at the word.

EB - Good point that the "wrong" words regardless of size can take a reader out of the story; that is what we writers are trying to prevent.

Hmmm -- didn't realize I was ranting; I took it as commentary on society at large

Gloria -- a little bit of character-defining vocabulary can go a long way. Set it in place and every so often remind the reader with a well-timed doozy should do the trick.

~ Jim

Jim Jackson said...

Shelia -- I agree that often the "obscure" word has a slightly different meaning to it than its simple "synonym." Using the simple word can obfuscate the difference

My own vocabulary will only shrink as everything about my memory seems to shrink with more years under my belt. I suspect some of the last to go will be just the words we've been talking about because they are unique.

~ Jim

Jim Jackson said...

Kathleen -- We need to stay in character & I like Shelia's point that even when describing her blue-collar character's actions she uses simple, minimum-syllable words. That's something I don't think I would have thought about.

~ Jim

E. B. Davis said...

LOL! It was an erudite rant, Jim.

Clamo88 said...

I relate so well to your thoughts, Jim, and several of the responses. I use some "obscure" words in my daily language and get some pretty funny looks. But I like language and think we're losing some of the words that have very specific meaning -- one word with do what takes a sentence otherwise (sometimes).

I spent my reading time as a youth looking up many words and from that I learned. I hated to be told to use a dictionary to learn how to spell a word (because I could never find it because I was misspelling it) but I loved to look up words to discover their meaning. And from there I learned other words that could do the job as well.

I hate dumbing down my writing. You can't use semi-colons; no one likes them. You can't write complex sentences; no one will read them. And on it goes.

Hang in there with your gut choice, Jim, and only use the synonym if it's really necessary.

Jim Jackson said...

Hey Claire -- I hear you. I have to admit I am a fan of semicolons; they mirror the way we think and speak. [grin]

I keep them and colons out of dialogue, but otherwise I retain a fair number of them because I use complex sentence structure on occasion.

So far my publisher and editors have allowed that structure to remain.

~ Jim

Krista said...

Jim, instead of changing your words, ahem, maybe you should change your beta readers. (Now ducking because I'm sure rotten tomatoes are coming my way.)

IMHO, the only reason to dumb down vocabulary is when it's so strained that it becomes pretentious. I'm a big believer in writing for flow. Stilted sentences and language take the reader out of the story.

Use your words and use them with joy. Your readers will appreciate them!

Susan said...

I think you should stick to your guns and use the words you believe your character would say. We're dumbing down everything these days. Believe it or not, our audience does have intelligent readers who will find your book and enjoy it because it isn't dumbed down.
Having taught high school English for 34 years, I have never understood how the readers of Poe's day had such huge vocabularies. Same with those who read Charles Dickens' works. It shows how much our educational system has deteriorated. If these words were part of standardized public school testing, believe me, those students would have them drilled into their heads. Perhaps your beta readers are wrong?

Barb Ross said...

Oh my gosh, have you hit a hot button with me. The words are only obscure because we don't use them. It's a vicious cycle.

I absolutely refuse to be tied down by this. True, characters shouldn't speak in ways that are untrue to them. And I tell my Maine Clambake Mystery series through the first person POV of my thirty year old protagonist, so that limits me somewhat, though as my 30 year-old daughter points out, my NPR-listening 26 year old niece speaks quite differently than most of her peers.

But instead of dumbing language down, it is my mission to rescue language. In one of our Level Best stories, an elderly Maine character referred to a "dite of milk." One of the editors wanted to take it out, because she couldn't find it in a dictionary. I fought it like crazy, and finally found doit, meaning a little (which was perfectly clear for the context). The author said,"Oh, I'm sure that's the correct spelling. I'd never seen it written. It was something my grandmother used to say." Worth preserving in my opinion.

I feel the same way about rules like "never use adverbs." Please. If they're never necessary, why do we have them?

English is a big, glorious, wonderful language, one with multiple roots and that unabashedly borrows from other languages. It is in part the love the language that draws me to reading and writing. And as I reader I find I need a certain level of complexity, of plot, of character, of theme and yes, of language, to truly be drawn into the world of a book.

Jim Jackson said...

Krista -- I love your thinking. The problem, of course, is one person's natural vocabulary is another person's pretentious.

We'll see how the experiment goes. Jan (the much better half) is in your camp and just starting the final proofreading. It will be interesting to see if she objects to the final product since she's likely to remember where I had previously used the "big" words and now done something different.

~ Jim

Jim Jackson said...

Susan and Barbara -- It is a viscous cycle. I have not and will not completely capitulate.

Like Barb, I stick to my guns when it comes to historical or technical terms or to regionalisms. I wrote a short story that involved an open pit mine and another a historical story about an 1850s newspaper shop. Both used uncommon words because the characters would have used them. My Yooper stories contain colloquialisms that are what they are.

I tend to write complex sentences (and plots), which already challenges some readers. Given my choice, I'll keep the sentences as that is the rhythm of my style while forgoing some of my vocab.

We'll wee how it goes.

~ Jim

Gayle Carline said...

Pity, Jim. I love cacophonies. Also brouhahas, tchotchkes, and the phrases "flotsam and jetsam" and "sturm und drang". I had no idea I was confusing my readers... although none of them complained. The only thing they've ever commented on is that some people think that my real hometown (where my mysteries are set) is a fake name. Really, I live in Placentia.

Krista said...

It's a good thing you have Jan around to set you straight! ; )

Jim Jackson said...

Gayle -- love the name of your hometown.

Krista -- don't you and she both know that!

Shari Randall said...

I love coming across unusual words so keep putting them in, Jim! For me, characters have to speak naturally. If that means a college professor uses words of three syllables, so be it. When I read some bestselling authors who are clearly on the words-of-one-syllable bandwagon I feel cheated by their colorless language. There's a reason words evolve and appear - it's because they do the job. So keep using your bright, vivid, multihued, kaleidoscopic vocab - we'll all be the richer for it.

Pam De Voe said...

Wow, you really started an interesting conversation, Jim!

My comment: Remember Harry Potter. JK Rowling proved that authors didn't have to "dumb down" their vocabulary or their story lines for a young audience.

We shouldn't underestimate our readers--whether formally educated or not.

Interestingly, in a critique group I was both admonished for using a complex vocabulary (for a professor) and then for having that character use a common expression anyone would use. The latter criticism was because the one commenting on my piece said such an educated person would never use such a common expression! Sometimes, you can't win for losing. :)

Jim Jackson said...

Pam -- You make an interesting point about the Harry Potter books and vocabulary. However, I've noticed that fantasy and science fiction readers have a greater tolerance for words they don't know because they are in worlds they don't know. I wonder if that makes a difference.

~ Jim

Georgia Ruth said...

Tremendous post/rant. Thoroughly enjoyed all the responses.