The Precise Word

They say the average mass-market novel is written at a sixth grade reading level.

Now, that terminology is nebulous, at best, because if you talk about a sixth grade education in say, 1780, versus a sixth grade education now, the words you'd find in the vocabulary of students sampled from each era would be vastly different. I'm going to assume when the statistics people say "6th grade education," they mean a relatively contemporary version of that body of knowledge.

I tend to write blind to reading level, personally. If the precise word for the moment is one that the average child who walks into my seventh grade literature classroom won't know, so be it. Admittedly, that's probably a bit of a cavalier attitude, coming from somebody whose work has not yet garnered a royalty paying contract, but this is not a new soapbox for me. I have always had a deep conviction about the use of the precise word. If it happens to be "lassitude," then I think most readers have easy enough access to a dictionary to discover what that means. That is, if they can't get the meaning through context.

The meaning through context...this is close to the heart of the matter, if it isn't the actual life-pulse of it. I must be getting old, because I look around me and say things like, "People these days..." I shudder to think what I'm going to be like when I'm retirement age, sitting on my porch blustering about how the world's gone to pieces since I was a kid. I'm going to be that lady, I can see it. As usual however, I'm digressing. The point I'm trying to make here is that it amazes me how we as a society have access to so much more information than ever in the history of the world, and yet we're getting dumber by the minute. People don't know how to figure anything out, how to research. If it doesn't come up in the first four entries of a google search, or if the article in which the information exists can't be found in a fifteen-second skim, then it's too hard. If a book has any words that the reader doesn't know, or sentence structure that requires a little unraveling, then it's "boring." (I have discovered of late that "boring" in twenty-first century vernacular actually means "too hard." Strange, how challenges are somehow now boring, and being fed stimulation that requires no active engagement on the part of the recipient is now fun.)

So do we play into this continual dilution of society's pool of knowledge by only presenting readers with material they know and can grasp without discomfort? I, personally, would be most blessed if people came away from reading my work, not only having enjoyed a few sittings worth of escapism, but perhaps learned something, whether it be a word, a turn of phrase, a setting detail, or--brace yourself now--how to dig for information that wasn't spoon-fed to them. After all, does it serve my story best to stop the action to explain that a troika is a team of three horses, one hitched to a post on the vehicle they are pulling, and the other two hitched by means of specialized harness, typically used in Russian and similar eastern European cultures? Or is it more dramatic to have my villain thunder through the city gates, whipping his galloping troika of horses as though the lash of the leather will somehow sooth his fury at the hero's escape? (And leave the definition of a troika unexplained.) Perhaps the reader will simply gloss over the unfamiliar term and come away from the sentence knowing the villain is abusing a few horses who are pulling some kind of vehicle, and perhaps the few after my heart will take a second to look up what a troika is, and gather the full, Slavic picture I had implied.

Either way, at least for now, I intend to stick with the deployment of precise words into the battlefield of my novels as we struggle against the continual tide that is dragging humankind into vapid, monosyllabic expression. Will any publisher ever sign me with my idealistic ways? I have no idea. Though I suppose if not,  that will give me something else to bang my cane on the porch over when I'm old and crabbing about the state of the universe, if nothing else.

Write on, language enthusiasts!


  1. I think I'll be joining you on that porch... keep me a spot!

  2. (On behalf of Jaime, who was having technical difficulites in posting)
    "... you're not wrong (and if you are, so am I, and I don't really care). My novels are set in a medieval-style world, and I use appropriate terminology.... Someone who offered a critique of the first novel told me to get rid of all of those words because no one knew what they meant (she was referring to my use of "veil" and "wimple"), and readers shouldn't have to use a dictionary when reading books.

    I disagree. First, there are no other words to describe the article of clothing known as a veil and wimple. It is what it is (and the same is true for the rest of the terminology). Second, if you only encounter familiar words when you read, you'll never grow (and this person was a writer as well). So, yeah, pick up a dictionary. They don't just make good doorstops or flower presses. Third, writers should not dumb down their fiction to accommodate laziness. Not only is that just stupid and insulting, it will alienate readers who are familiar with specialized terminology, and will make you appear either ignorant of your subject matter or too lazy to research it. It all comes down to authenticity, and I want my readers to feel like they've been transported to another world. That's not going to happen if I dress my medieval women in a slip and skirt instead of a chemise and cotehardie. It just doesn't work. And the proper terminology paints a far better picture in fewer words. For example, I could say, "She wore a sideless surcoat," or I could say, "She wore a long, sleeveless outer dress with huge armholes that fell below her hips and were sometimes trimmed in fur." Gee.... which one should I choose?

    Okay... I'll get off the soapbox now."

  3. Specialized vocabulary is common in our genres, Becky. We just need to pick our battles wisely and make it "clear enough" in context and without stopping the action/flow of the scene. Not easy to do, of course. It takes practice and trial and error. We do need to let go of our unrealistic expectations that the reader will look it up; only authors and editors will. The reading public does not. They have not been trained to and they think they shouldn't have to, etc. and they're the ones we ultimately have to please. Some might bother to read a glossary, however, but most don't like having to stop to read to check a reference or chart included in the book, either. It's the interruption aspect they don't like. Words they don't know bump them out of the story today. Mourn the dumbing down, but there's little we can do about it, so we have to deal with that hard reality and make sure when we assume intelligence, we're assuming a reasonable level. It's all about audience; use the vocabulary of your intended audience and clearly define words that are outside of it, without the cold stop responsible for modern readers' typical loathing of unfamiliar words and using a reference of any sort while reading.


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