Saturday, 20 May 2017

Vocabulary, Dictionaries, And Reading Levels

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Should Vocabulary Be Dumbed Down In Fiction?

I saw this question in an author group recently: "Since most writers have above-average vocabularies, do you write at your natural level or do you 'dumb it down' to meet the national average of 6th grade readers?"

It's a good question, and made me think. I know some readers like it when they don't recognise a word in a book, and so they check it in a dictionary (or get the e-reader to display a definition), learning a new word in the process.

Other readers hate that, and claim they will give up on a book if it has too many words they don't know. "The writer is showing off," "I don't want to look at a dictionary," and so on.

So what's a writer to do?

Language Level Should Be Appropriate

I think the most important rule is that language should always be appropriate to the character and the scene. If you have a super genius discussing his proposal, then he'd better sound like a super genius discussing his proposal (in which case it's expected that the reader won't understand it all - as long as they believe it). And if you have a normal ten-year-old, make them sound like a normal ten-year-old, not a retired librarian.

This guide - that language should be appropriate to the character and scene - takes precedence over others.

I also think having a diversity of characters is vital, not just for the reader, but for the writer. If I felt all the characters in one of my works were too similar, I'd get bored writing it (plus it would be harder to keep the details and differences clear in my head). The same as a reader. It's why we ended up with the "unlikely coupling" trope. Though as with any writing rule - it can be broken if the end result works.

It's Okay If The Reader Doesn't Know Every Word

Even if you use a word that a reader doesn't understand, what does it matter? They can look it up and learn in one go. Or they can ignore it and read on anyway - the sense is usually apparent, and that's often how we gradually learn what words mean, from context.

The way to learn new words and expand your vocabulary is to read them. If authors avoid certain words then those words will eventually die, and we end up without the finesse to make subtle distinctions. I'd rather use the dictionary by my bed than end up with an impoverished word-hoard. Words are the building blocks of communication, and communication is the foundation of civilisation.

I think my prose is fairly readable. If someone disagrees then I have no problem with that - they are probably right, my prose isn't so readable for them. Fine. People seek out writers they get on with, and avoid those they don't. It's normal. It's probably not a good idea to keep simplifying things, or your style will get diluted too.

How It Affects Our Writing

I don't mind learning new words. I love it. I keep a dictionary by the bed, and often read a page or two just for fun.

What I do mind is monotonous and repetitious prose. One of the faults of amateur writing is over-repetition of the same words. I see this when I edit for other authors sometimes. The only way to avoid that is to have a wider vocabulary.

Repetition is also a problem with the first drafts of any writer. I'm just as guilty of it as anyone else. That can be fixed easily, but rewriting is still a lot quicker if I don't need to keep checking a thesaurus.

Of course, all books include some repetition of words. But there's repetition, and there's repetition. I'm talking about repetition that draws attention to itself as lazy writing.

It's About The Audience Too

Language level and vocabulary will partly be determined by your target audience (maybe at a very broad level - e.g. school children, teenagers, professors of magical academies). You can go broader and reach more, or be more discerning, but have a smaller audience.

Don't worry too much about writing a book for everyone. It isn't possible. Swing towards over-simplified prose and you may put off readers who like to be encouraged.

Always write as best as you can, always appropriately for the story; then find the readers who like it, and don't generally worry about those who won't. They're not your audience, they're someone else's. Leave them alone.

And if it does bother you, here's a tip. If you're not sure about including a word, because you think it's the right word for the place, but worry it may seem too complex to some readers, then just make sure contextual clues make it clear what it means. Even then, you only need to do that for words that have some real significance, not those used for subtle flavour.

That's Enough Of Me

Time to open it out: am I wrong? Readers: do you like it when you learn new words, or hate it? Or is there some tipping point? Writers: do you base vocabulary and level on character, or on your target audience, or both?

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