Today on twitter @readinasitting linked to Unusual words rendered in bold graphics, the Project Twins’ alphabet project that takes words rarely used and illustrates them based on their meaning. I’m a visual writer, I tend to see scenes quite vividly in my mind (which is odd as I used to be a musician) so I loved the words and the way they’ve been interpreted visually.
It did get me thinking about language and words and their use in prose. I have repeatedly read the advice: “Use simple words. No one wants to consult a dictionary while they are reading.” I feel quite frustrated by that advice. it seems to be a self-reinforcing cycle, that we used simple words so our readers aren’t baffled by our meaning, but in using simple words, our readers aren’t exposed to new words. As a child I devoured books above my age level, finding myself confronted by words that English lessons didn’t cover. I was forced to decipher the meaning through context or consult a dictionary. My vocabulary grew, because I was exposed to a rich tapestry of words. I might not be able to pronounce those words but I intuitively or explicitly know what they mean.
Now I realise there are authors who take it to the extreme. I recently read a book that I found impenetrable due to the prose. You don’t need to use obscure words to obscure meaning, you can use a few slightly advanced words, or a lot of common words, but the effect is still the same. A frustrating experience for the reader. I don’t want to frustrate my readers, but I also don’t want to patronise them by using little words all the time. It’s a balance.
I see words as providing colour, texture, and meaning. I aim to make meaning clear but I also want to provide sensual textures through use of language. It’s not enough for me to write simply. I write for pleasure, and one of my pleasures is language. I don’t use big words in every sentence, because that would make reading my stories like reading an academic text (been there, done that and it’s not fun!), but if it is warranted, I will use words that might be considered “big”. Sadly I think the Project Twins’ words will have to be left out of my fiction, because by and large they are potentially too obscure (except for “welter”) but I will remain an advocate for the appropriate use of language. And I refuse to write down to my readers. Language matters.