On Word Choice and Distractions in Fiction

Hey Folks,

Recently much has been written over on Pro Writers Writing about word choice. I decided to add a few of my own thoughts here.

First, my own rule of thumb: When writing fiction, I try to never put anything on the page that will call attention to itself and thereby distract the reader from the story.

That includes unnecessary or misused punctuation, archaic or pretentious words, archaic constructions, and clichéd words or phrases. Distracting the reader from the story by using anything extraneous is self-defeating. You want readers to be immersed in your story, right? You don’t want them to “notice” anything.

I’ve addressed Punctuation for Writers and the use of cliché in other writings. So today I’ll talk about words.

I never “search for” a less-common or more-common word. I just write.

Now, that isn’t to say that having an extensive vocabulary isn’t a good thing — it is a good thing because having an extensive vocabulary gives the writer a larger toolbox — but words are still only tools to be used when necessary. While writing, Story is all that matters.

That being said, here are a couple of cases in point from my own experience:

1. Sometimes the specific “right” word I want eludes me.

For example, in the manuscript for my short story “Keep Calm and Carry On”, I wrote GREEN STUFF (in all caps so it would be easy to find later) in a short story manuscript. In the moment, the word I wanted (which was part of my vocabulary) escaped me.

But I couldn’t very well have a sniper in the heat of the hunt in a heavily wooded area spotting what might be a human shoulder next to “some green stuff on a rock,” could I? So later, when the story was all but finished, I keyed “green stuff on a rock” into a search engine and “lichen” popped up. Yes!

2. At other times, I just get a little too full of myself.

One of my first readers (Thanks, Nan!) dinged me when I wrote in one of my four Nick Spalding action-adventure novels that a pair of people “secreted” themselves in a hedgerow. She said I might want to use “hid” instead because “secreted” put her in mind of something coming out of the south end of a north-bound snail. (grin)

And she was right. I had used “secreted” just because I like the sound of that word. But it was unnecessary and it jerked at least one reader out of the story. And honestly, it was pretentious for the setting and the situation.

It was also a blatant case of author intrusion. Neither of the protagonists would have used “secreted.”

Almost every time a writer uses a less-common word when a more-common word will do just as well, he comes across as doing so just to show off his vocabulary.

Again, though an extensive vocabulary is a good thing to have, vocabulary in and of itself doesn’t matter. What matters is Story.

Here’s a blast from the past, also in support of my argument:

In the famous “Dictionary Feud,” William Faulkner once said of Hemingway that the latter had “never been known to use a word that might send the reader to the dictionary.”

For the record, I thought that was a silly statement when I read it. Why would any fiction writer want to send a reader to a dictionary? My job as a fiction writer is to entertain, period, not to educate. Intentionally using a word that would send the reader to a dictionary would be self-defeating in that it would interrupt the reading of the work.

Hemingway responded with “Poor Faulkner. Does he really think big emotions come from big words? He thinks I don’t know the ten-dollar words. I know them all right. But there are older and simpler and better words, and those are the ones I use.”

The writer is the first (and worst) judge of his own work. The reader makes the final determination. As fictionists, we would do well to embrace the notion that we are entertainers, pure and simple.

Essays (like this one) are the proper venue for instruction. Fiction, not so much.

‘Til next time, happy writing!


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