Laurel Newberry’s Confessions of a Word Addict

I think my love affair with words began with the first story my mother read to me. Okay, maybe not quite that far back, but she is responsible for planting the seed. No matter how many times I heard the same story the words were always magical. Friday or Saturday nights were for snuggling in together with a chapter book. She would read a chapter or two, pausing to make sure I understood big or strange words. With an actor’s skill she wove magic, gave the characters voices and expressions and emotion, all the nuances that were embedded in rich vocabulary.

What is the point of my trip down memory lane? Bear with me I’m going to rant just a bit.

Why would any modern day author be required to simplify language before a book will be published? I understand that we live in an age that is geared toward keeping things more streamlined. Our society values the quick and easy. I’m busy, you’re busy, things are hectic and there are never enough hours in the day. Okay for a lot of things but I don’t agree that it applies in this instance.

Whether reading books or writing them, every individual brings something to the experience; a yearning for adventure or an inclination to solve a mystery. For others it is a longing for great romance, complete with the requisite: Happily Ever After. Think about what makes one book an easy beach read you set down and pick up over the course of a few days, and the next book one you stay up into the wee hours of the night to finish. What takes a generic boy meets girl story from syrupy drama to epic romance? It is all in finding the right combination of characters, plot, drama, and words. Yes, words. Big and small, inventive and enticing, it is the diversity of words that enrich the story.

With the emergence of eReaders I don’t see a compelling reason for authors to be asked to simplify vocabulary. It only takes a moment to tap on an unfamiliar word and learn it’s meaning through the embedded dictionary/thesaurus. Why miss an opportunity to elevate the experience, to refine the meaning and emotion?

What do you think? Am I alone in my quest or does it matter to other readers?

As for me, I intend to keep reading, and writing, with my dictionary and thesaurus at the ready.

Seriously, there’s an app for that 🙂

13 thoughts on “Laurel Newberry’s Confessions of a Word Addict

  1. Excellent points, Laurel. Sometimes what we work a little for has more meaning for us because the experience in gaining “it” enriches our lives. Living in the Pacific Northwest as I do, if I told people it was “raining” outside and another native looked out their window, they’d wonder where I was. It is actually a fine, almost dry mist. Yes, if I’m out long enough I’ll get wet but if I was writing about the weather, the reader has a better opportunity of being in the setting with my characters if I’ve taken the time to find and use the right words.

    • Judith, this is the crux of the matter. Painting a picture with the words and using them in a way that enriches the experience without pulling the reader out of the action. I love your example of the “fine, almost dry mist.”

  2. I’ve never heard of an author being asked to simplify the language because that is what is needed for modern readers. Did that happen to someone you know? If so, that is truly sad.

    There are two instances I know of when I’ve mentioned to an author that the language needed to be more straightforward or simpler. One was a children’s book designed for an audience of 8-10 year olds. Though I agree that some words can be looked up and new vocabulary established and that one should never write down to children, the author still needs to make sure that the reading level isn’t so high the book will be far too difficult to get through. My rule of thumb is to write one level above the expected level. There are automated check engines that will tell you what reading level you are writing on. The other time I suggested an author “simplify” language was a case of purple prose. She thought it sounded very literary. I thought it distracted from the meaning and from moving the scene forward.

    All that being said, whenever one writes with a larger vocabulary or incorporates deeper themes it is wise to put up the shields. There will definitely be readers who will give bad reviews because they were hoping for a “simple” read–one that goes quickly and provides an escape. I for one want deeper meaning, more complex relationships in a book. If I’m going to take several hours out of my busy day I want to think deeply and have the book stick in my mind for a long time. However, I also completely understand the need for pure, easy escape. I use movies for that. I use books for thinking. 🙂

    • Maggie, I do know of an author who was asked to simplify language in a novel. The thing that bothered me most was that the meaning of the original vocabulary, read in context, was easy to figure out. There was nothing jarring or particularly odd. In the end, rather than changing every highlighted word the author decided to defend her choices and the editor acquiesced on most of them.
      When it comes to children’s books I believe there is plenty of room for more books that challenge and expand the reader’s vocabulary. When my children were in school we had trouble finding age appropriate content for gifted readers. I read huge stacks of middle-grade and YA books so that I would know what my kids were getting into.
      Yes, there will always be readers who need or prefer a “simple” read and maybe we all want that at some point. I hope as readers we can learn to find those authors who meet our needs.

  3. Interesting blog post! To me the quality of a story is how the words are strung together. Using Judith’s example,, the painting of a picture in your mind using different words for the same thing, produces two very different pictures: the difference between “raining” and “an almost dry, fine mist” is huge. A writer needs to use the correct words for the picture she’s painting. I had two multi-published authors (Harelequin) tell me don’t use a dollar word where a dime one will do. When I read a book I don’t want to be pulled out of the story to look up a word. I have put aside books, only a couple, where the context of the story did not explain the word. We just had a big conversation on my Sacramento writing loop about this very thing. One more thing, I’ve read lots of Nora Roberts books and have never been pulled out of the story because she used a word I didn’t know.:))

    • You are correct, the right word in the right place should not pull you out of the story. I read a lot of Nora and don’t get pulled out of the story by her word choices, but I have had to look up a few because she uses Gaelic in some of the books and I want to know the full meaning. She usually gives the translation or makes certain the reader can figure it out from the context.

  4. Great post, Laurel! I do think the words should match the POV character, so if the heroine’s a professor who speaks properly and views the world more formally, then the story should reflect that, even in the descriptions given in the scene. As for technical language, some hint of what the word means is important – mainly because I don’t always have my dictionary close by! 🙂

  5. As an editor, when I flag vocab for an author, it’s hit me as out of character. An uneducated character using hard words he wouldn’t be likely to know or a person who always speaks in a formal manner tossing out slang or using uncharacteristically bad grammar. And that doesn’t mean they never do either on occasion, but if I stop to question it, because it doesn’t fit in context with what else is happening, I’ve left the story. It’s fine if an author chooses to keep the word in question, but she should have the opportunity to evaluate the potential for it to make readers read the dictionary instead of her story.
    I’ll also query it if it seems a case of thesaurus abuse–usage doesn’t fit their apparent meaning. Each synonym has a different connotation, and some use archaic or difficult words they don’t seem to understand.
    As a reader, I find the magic spell of the story is broken for me if I have to pause to look up a word. Even if only to tap the screen. If it’s rare, it doesn’t bother me, but a couple times a chapter, and I’ll put the book down. I read to lose myself in new places and face conflict and adventures with brave and daring people, feel their joy and sorrow, not for a vocab lesson. If I’m reading the dictionary, I’ve been yanked out of the story. Nonfiction, I read for learning, but in fiction, I want escape and magic.
    Writing great stories is all about word choice, drawing images with words. My goal is to help writers tell a story readers can’t put down. Making readers use the dictionary equals making readers put the story down.

  6. Good points, Penny. Thank heavens for editors who really get into the flow of each story and understand the characters so well. I didn’t intend to advocate the use of vocabulary inappropriate to character dialogue, I’ve read books with dialog that didn’t match because it was either too sophisticated or too simple. Some I have put down, others I have soldiered through because the story was good enough to pull me through torturous word choices, or horrific sentence structure. Not many can achieve that disparity and survive the “donate” bin.

    While I don’t appreciate being hit over the head with someone’s thesaurus I do delight in finding word-treasure in a book, even those I’m reading for escape. Just the right word, the one that adds shading to the picture, can bring a thrill of joy to my soul.

  7. Correct! I think the books I read in childhood contributed to my success in school and work. Hours of reading outside on the lawn with the blue sky above filled my early years with adventures and words I couldn’t pronounce or heard my family say.

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