Monday, March 12, 2018

The Uncommon Word: Surprising Our Readers with Extraordinary Language

In the library the other day, I came across a copy of Michael Wolff’s tell-all book, Fire and Fury: Inside the Trump White House and, even though I’m pressed for time to read lately, I decided to check it out. The book turns out to be a great dish on the chaotic and cringe-worthy first year of the current administration, but what surprised me most about it is was the language Wolff uses. Scattered across the pages are words I am embarrassed to admit I don’t know: words like samizdat, revanchism, myrmidons, quant, and hortatory.

To be truthful, I wasn’t expecting this level of vocabulary in what I thought would be a People type of read. To be clear, the book is quite good; it provides a fascinating first-hand look at the temperament of the current president and the political machinations of the people he chooses to work for him. But I have had to keep my phone handy while reading this book, just so I can look up some of the unfamiliar words I’m encountering as I go along.

This process of looking up new vocabulary words brings back some of the best memories of my childhood. I was one of those kids who loved to read and enjoyed diving into books above my recommended reading level. I delighted in learning new words, and discovered, as an interesting by-product, that doing so taught me to be a better writer, as well as a reader. But at some point in my life, I lost this drive to discover new vocabulary words. I replaced it with a desire to acquire more content in what I was reading. Now I’m wondering if it was a good idea to lose interest in growing my vocabulary.

While many of us enjoy discovering new words in the books we’re reading, most of us who write don’t have the same feeling about pushing the vocabulary envelope. It’s a tough job just to get the words on the page on some days and forcing ourselves to write with more complex language is sometimes not a priority. But I have to admit that when I read books that are written with an elevated vocabulary, I find that I’m more likely to remember them as the books I love the most.

My appreciation for heightened language is ironic considering that in the college business classes I teach, I urge students to write with short, simple words. Some of the rationale behind this pedagogy is that when writing for business, the primary goal is to be clear. But when it comes to writing fiction and nonfiction books, the goal is a little different. In those cases, we are telling stories. Our purpose, for the most part, is to inform and entertain. And I would argue that in those cases, the type of words we use matter more.

Finding just the right word to describe a character or situation might take the writer a little more time, but the end result can be captivating and memorable, and can make our stories soar. I know some will argue that forcing readers to stop and look up words might take them out of the stories we write. There is some truth to that. But reading Wolff’s work has reminded me that in addition to developing a good storyline and creating memorable characters,  I also need to up my game when it comes to the language I use in my writing. I believe I owe it to my characters, my stories, and most of all, to my readers, especially if I want them to remember my books as the ones they love the most.