19

I sometime express my personality too much in my more creative fiction. When I get going, I include slang words and phrases that sound fascinating and are comprehensible to me, but may not be interesting or understandable to my readers.

I'd hate to think that, to understand what I write, my readers have to resort to multiple internet searches. I imagine it would be frustrating for them to have to do this and would lead them to read something else instead.

Question: what resources exist to enable writers of jargon-filled prose to temper this tendency, yet still retain their precious individuality and creativity?

  • 3
    I should add (from my point of view...), based on reading older books (being a 40 or over 100 years old!) it adds to the "character" of the story, much in the same way you may make names for a character and species, heck some stories have created languages put in! Some scifi novels do include a glossary or similar to make this less of a pain - which would help in the future anyway as languages evolve over time. – Wilf Jun 21 '18 at 23:00
23

Identifying incomprehensible slang is one of the best functions of an in-person writing group. Having your work read by other writers, who do not share your cultural or linguistic biases, will quickly illuminate the unclear bits in your work.

18

This question is simply answered: Let others read your work!

Others often have a different view on the project, especially if they are not related to you; they often deliver a pretty good review on your work and your writing style. If the slang is too much, they will tell you that too.

17

One trick, once you've identified the words you're overusing, is to remove them from the dictionary of the spell checker you are using. That way your text editor will highlight then for you and it's easy to go through afterwards and decide whether each instance needs to be kept our removed.

This works for words you want to avoid entirely and for words you overuse.

13

Congratulations on recognizing the problem. I think that's the crucial step to avoiding it.

Writers, especially new writers, often seem to have the delusion that everyone in the world lives in exactly the same cultural bubble that they do. They assume, for example, that everyone likes the same bands that they do, and that if they quote a line from their favorite song every reader will instantly recognize it and that it will bring all the same associations to mind that it does for the writer.

Or as with your question, they assume that a slang term used by people in their group is recognized by everyone in the world.

Simple solution: avoid slang.

Ok, sometimes you need it to set the tone or be true to the setting. A group of teenagers who never use slang might seem unrealistic. Though in practice, I think writers who say this exaggerate the problem. Yes, maybe teenagers in such-and-such a place would really say, "Wow, that frab was totally the horge!" But if you have them say, "Wow, that ball game was really exciting!", how many readers would find this unbelievable, or even particularly notice?

If you find it desirable to use slang, introduce it in a way that makes it clear what it means. Sometimes this is easy. A large percentage of slang is just alternate words for "good" and "bad". So if I read, say, "All right!! That was like, totally perpendicular, dude", I'd take it that "perpendicular" here is a slang term for "good".

If it's more specific, either define it, or make it clear from context. Like if a character says, "I saw a zube yesterday", well, that could be anything from a kind of animal to a movie to a phase of the moon. Instead, the first time you use the word, wrap it in a context that defines it. Preferably without actually saying, "this is what this word means". Like, say, "We're going to a zube by that new band tonight. I really like their music." Now the reader can readily guess that it's some sort of concert.

But for the most part, I'd say to simply avoid slang. To the reader who is not familiar with the slang words, it really stands out and, in my humble opinion, does more to distract from the story than to establish the setting.

Also, slang tends to be very transient. The slang that was popular 20 years ago sounds very old-fashioned today. When I was a teenager, we said that things were "groovy" and "hip". Use those words today and you sound like a refugee from the 70's. I'm sure that whatever slang kids are using today will sound very dated in 20 years ... or six months.

8

You need to recognize this is a tool in your toolbox as a writer. It isn't "wrong" to do it, it just has a specific effect and impact that you may or may not want: Use of slang, in general, establishes a social "in group" (those who understand the slang) and an "out group" (those who don't understand it). It builds a sense of commonality and community among those who understand it, and is distancing and alienating to those who don't. So it doesn't so much display personality as it does establish a social context.

There are some very effective books written entirely in slang ("The Moon is a Harsh Mistress") and/or dialect ("Their Eyes Were Watching God") and at least one very famous book written entirely in the author's idiolect --which is a completely personal variation on language ("Finnegans Wake"). But it demands a lot of the reader, and can limit the size of your audience.

If you do want to use it, the following can help: Use it sparingly, for flavor. Introduce it gradually, and in a context where it can be easily understood and/or where understanding it is not a necessity. Use it in the full awareness that the feeling it will give the reader will be very different depending on whether he or she understands it or not. Use it, knowing that slang tends to go stale very quickly, and to not travel well.

5

Neither your individuality or your creativity is precious, no matter what they told you in kindergarten. Your story may or may not be precious, depending on whether it is any good or not. Creating a good story is not about expressing yourself (no matter what they told you in kindergarten), it is about expressing your story.

Stories are told. That is, they are transmitted, communicated, to other people. They are good (and therefore precious) insofar as they are successfully recieved by the reader. As a writer, therefore, you should be 100% focussed on what the reader receives.

Unless you write purely for catharsis, your private slang, your native word choices, are entirely inappropriate unless the reader can readily receive them. To reach the reader, to produce something potentially precious, you must write in language that is readily accessible to and evocative for the class of readers you hope to reach.

You don't necessarily discover this by listening to what they say or reading what they write, because most people have a much larger recognition vocabulary than use vocabulary and will readily understand lots of words they would not ordinarily write or say. Instead, read what they read, and read it extensively, and with attention.

Writers read differently from other people. They read with attention to structure and story and vocabulary. (Some complain that it ruins their enjoyment of popular entertainment -- they see all the flaws.)

Learn to read like a writer and this will teach you to write for an audience. Francine Prose has a fine book called Reading Like a Writer.

2

I don't think you need any resource other than your own intelligence and self-awareness. We know when our slang is not "standard", just don't use it.

Plus, it is ephemeral anyway, the 1920's "bees knees" and "flappers" are unintelligible to us now; "copacetic" is a real word made popular in the 1970's but few today would recognize it. (like one menaing of "cool" it means "in excellent order", like "It's all copacetic, dude.")

Slang ages quickly. Never use it in exposition, in fact I personally avoid any word in exposition if I think a typical reader of fiction would have to look it up.

In dialogue; characters can use slang, although I'd encourage you to study the mechanics of slang development (See Development of Slang and 15 Reasons People Use Slang.)

In particular, slang is generally short to say, a few syllables, and produced by a sub-culture to reflect something unique to that sub-culture, or if it is an insult, coined by outsiders to denigrate that sub-culture, and for the purposes of diffusion, not difficult to pronounce or recall; slang words and expressions are easily learned and understood upon first hearing, and easily explained in a short sentence.

  • Bees Knees is still popular, as is dogs balls and ducks nuts. Although, that might just be australia – Thomo Jun 22 '18 at 4:08
2

My answer is that you will have faith in your target audience which will beget that of which you seek. In such a manner, your ability to pen a story or a narrative will resonate with your readers and perhaps those who do not know the word will be so enticed by what you have to offer that they will go through that learning procedure.

The most important thing is that you have a good flow while you write, if you are having a bad number of mental barriers it means you are not penning from the heart.

Do not fret, there are such good numbers of mental barriers.

Keep up your writing.

2

I don't think you should worry about it. Anthony Burgess's novel, "A Clockwork Orange", which was written entirely in a fictional language called 'Nadsat' was the apotheosis of home-made slang. Stanley Kubrick made that book into a movie, so it can not have been a total failure.

And I must admit, I'd love to have people being all over the internet to ask questions of my book, since everybody would get aware of it then. Marketing is not my prime super-power, and this could hopefully increase sales...!

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