15

Reading books of Dan Brown and that sort (pardon my inability to produce any other relevant examples off the top of my head) gives off the impression to budding writers that novels need to have a minimum standard of vocabulary, in order to be taken seriously or for the story to be more interesting. At least that's what it makes me think.

It puts off average English speakers like me from even attempting to write anything impactful, let alone a novel.

I've read few novels where the language is on par with what people use in day-to-day life (albeit my collection of read books is limited mostly to classics and thrillers, both of which tend to use gaudy words every now and then). The case with classics is understandable as even the normal language back then used to be more complex than what it's now (just look up at any Shakespeare piece, although that would probably be a tad too extreme). Thrillers, on the other hand, have this tendency to employ crisp and sophisticated vocabulary to set a certain mood.

Samples of what I usually end up writing (when I'm not trying too hard and just casually typing my mind away):

  1. Tea-making was art.

    I was fascinated, entranced by those fluid, graceful hand movements of that chaiwala, nimbly dipping the glass cups into hot water and pouring milk, tea, and gur one at a time.

    I hadn’t realised I had voiced the exclamation. My doting aunt and uncle had charming smiles in response, with an all-too-familiar all-knowing look. It plagued me to imagine I had thought anything less of it. It was pathetic how urban juveniles, myself included, underestimated the classic villages back here. Granted, it had none of the poshness and luxurious comfort that allowed us delicate little things to get shamelessly pampered. But it was more raw and downright ‘fresh’ than anything I had ever encountered back home in Dhaka. It was pathetic.

  2. My stomach did a series of somersaults within a mere fraction of a second when I spotted the 5-storeys tall building. We had arrived. I sat still, watching my mum bargain with the rickshaw-walla. Her lips pressed into a thin line; that was all I needed before I jumped down the rickshaw and hobbled my way up the long fifteen steps before stepping into the cool, refreshing air-conditioned room and into the limelight.

    Almost as soon I heaved the door in, I could feel a slew of all-penetrating rays escaping from 60 pairs of young eyes boring into my shaking person. Their line of sight seemed to be aligned on me.

    My heart stopped for the tiniest of moments when I spotted him in the back. No.

  3. Suddenly, my stomach convulsed with violent cramps. It was the beginning of something red and nasty. Period.

    I instinctively called out, “Uhmm, sir, I’m feeling sick.” The said sir concernedly rushed up to me and kindly asked whether I wanted to leave or go on to do rest of the class. I replied that a few minutes’ break would suffice, which he didn’t get. He assumed I hadn’t wanted to leave and simply went back. I don’t want to dwell on the fact that his English was woefully defective.

    After a little coaxing from some girls who were seated next to me, I managed to squeak out (in English, might I add): “Can I just leave?” in a voice that was the epitome of girlish timidity.

    He consented to my very innocent request. I simply packed my bag and dashed out. However I had to go through that boy to get to the exit. (He was sitting a couple of rows ahead.) And I somewhat awkwardly managed to heave myself through the heavy door and flee.

When does such a style get too simplistic for the average reader's taste? How much more polishing does it need to get close to being of a publishable standard?

I'm aware that they aren't perfect at any rate; they're to represent what my first drafts typically look like.

  • 18
    Dan Brown is considered to be a terrible writer by most professional authors and critics. There’s a famous “review” of one his books which makes fun of his unbearable, pretentious style, called Don’t make fun of renowned Dan Brown. – Konrad Rudolph Jul 10 '18 at 13:45
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    Wasn't Hemingway known for not using very fancy words? I think there are a lot of other examples like him. For example, I don't recall Murakami's short stories using any special vocabulary. – littleO Jul 10 '18 at 13:49
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    @KonradRudolph Don't be so exclusive. I'm neither a professional author nor a professional critic and I think Dan Brown is terrible too. – Kevin Jul 10 '18 at 19:02
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    If anything, I find the above examples overly wordy and flowery. I definitely wouldn't worry that they're not "sophisticated" enough. – GentlePurpleRain Jul 10 '18 at 22:37
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    I have no answer for you, but I see nothing wrong with your quoted texts. I have definitely read very good books which were simpler than that (and also books which were more complicated). It's not a big deal. Oh, and I personally cannot read Dan Brown. Style issues aside, his content is just so wrong (I happen to be an expert in some of the topics that played the key parts in one of his books, and what he wrote was all complete rubbish - I cannot take someone like this earnest; if I want to read SciFi or Fantasy, I will do so, but not look to that guy). – AnoE Jul 11 '18 at 13:47
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I don't think there is anything wrong with your vocabulary; if YOU are worried about it, I'd suggest you consult an online thesaurus at times. Here is one I use, it's fine and extremely extensive (2656 suggested synonyms for "fine"); so consult a dictionary or other source to fine tune the word you want.

Or better yet, use this resource to research the origin of the word (aka "etymology"). How it came to BE a word will often give you a good idea of how it should be used.

In general, many books are written in "plain" language, and that is all it takes.

When does such a style get too simplistic for the average reader's taste?

The only time this gets in the way is if there is a really obvious (to most native speakers) a better word to use, then the author can seem amateurish. For example,

In a trial Josh was found guilty of shoplifting

versus

Josh was convicted of shoplifting

Such substitutions are less easy to find, but with the power thesaurus, "convicted" is on the first page of synonyms for "guilty", so it can help in that sense. But your writing does not seem to suffer from a lack of exposure to common English.

How much more polishing does it need to get close to being of a publishable standard?

From a vocabulary standpoint, none. Save two instances: (1) "It plagued me" struck me as a wrong word choice, I'd actually prefer a simpler word like "bothered" or irritated or irked. (2) "Period." In English as a word in a sentence by itself, this connotation is "I won't discuss this further." To avoid that and indicate menstruation, it would be "My period." Even with your prior description.

Other issues make this fall short of publishable; and though I understand it is a first draft, I will point them out for future drafts:

You have an issue with pronoun agreement (The final "It was pathetic" is confusing when "it" has been used repeatedly to refer to "classic villages" in a positive tone (and for those references, "it" should have been "they").

You are in several places going over the top with multiple adjectives. "a mere fraction of a second" is too much. Pick an adjective, the perfect adjective, and don't make everything so extreme.

Not everything needs an adjective.

"instinctively called"
"concernedly rushed"
"kindly asked"
"simply went back"
"sad fact"
"woefully defective"

There is a maxim we use for people writing advertisements: If you emphasize everything, you have emphasized nothing.

If every tenth word in your sales letter is bolded, underlined, italicized, has a box drawn around it and a star-burst next to it, readers will just ignore all that. If you have ONE phrase in the letter set off in a box, that will be read by most readers.

A similar rule applies to adjectives in fiction. If you use them everywhere, they just start to be irritating!

Don't worry too much about building a fancy vocabulary. Do worry about word choice, though.

  • All that advice was awesome! Thanks a gazillion for the answer. But I think you misunderstood what I meant by "Period."---it was a double entendre (albeit a lame one). I do know the connotation this structure usually carries. It basically signals an end to any further discussion on a particular topic. – Soha Farhin Pine Jul 10 '18 at 11:52
  • Great answer as always. I'd add that adjectives are good, in moderation. Adverbs are a writing smell... if you're using an adverb (such as asked kindly) then 9 times out of 10 you should be using a better verb (such as sympathised) – Liath Jul 10 '18 at 14:57
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    @Liath Yeah, I kind of mixed those up (adverbs and adjectives). Avoid the "-ly". Although story is more important. JK Rowling's Harry Potter series is littered with adverbs, but she's made half a billion dollars with it. Stephen King has said (about her writing) "She's never met an adverb she didn't like." :-) But bottom line (in the literal sense), Her writing has made her richer than him, faster than him. – Amadeus Jul 10 '18 at 15:17
  • @Amadeus it's funny - I recently finished King's On Writing and that's why it was at the front of my mind. At the end of the day though I agree with his other statement, forced vocabulary doesn't work and if that's how you (or more importantly your characters speak) then that's how you should write! – Liath Jul 10 '18 at 15:20
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    @Liath I still strive to eliminate "-ly" adverbs; I think writing is generally stronger for it. Even Harry Potter would likely be stronger for it. But it clearly is not the fatal error some writing pundits imagine it is; for agents, publishers, or readers. – Amadeus Jul 10 '18 at 15:30
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You're looking for sophistication in the wrong places. The thesaurus is all well and good, but you want variable sentence lengths and structures, proof of a command of the grammar of the language more than its lexicon, and a distinctive voice or two. Is one character narrating? How they speak there and in dialogue each say something, and can differ. The way you use language should involve a lot of conscious choices, but they should be about such things as the atmosphere you're crafting, not whether you used SAT vocabulary. Ernest Hemingway famously took pride in eschewing the big words; what matters is the big feelings.

7

I'll answer something orthogonal since you have two nice answers already.

You can also think about this in terms of reading level and sentence complexity. You can think in terms of metrics. One of the answers mentioned varying sentence length. Another mentioned adjectives and adverbs. Both are good considerations.

Several tools exist to gauge the readability of a passage. One I've found recently is Count Wordsworth. It's a lot of fun. I'm not sure how useful it is, but will help you think in new ways. There are other tools online, but you ultimately will develop your own ear for it. (You can google on a blogger called Creativity Hacker -- A statistician who has analyzed fictional works with all sorts of metrics in mind. His blogs analyze more elements than I'd ever considered!)

My sense of your excerpts is you are confusing an even sprinkling of adjectives with a well-placed more intense phrase or sentence, in essence emotional punctuation, within a longer passage. In the short story linked below (fourth link), I'd say the tenth sentence is an example of an emotional punctuation (and the first such, in the passage). Up to that point it is simple description, few adjectives, evocative but simple.

Here are some links to play with.

Hemingway app

Wiki page on readability scores

Count Wordsworth

Hemingway. I love his writing. Here's a short story he wrote.

7

Don't worry about using simple language as long as it's well suited to your purposes. A good writer will make use of a large vocabulary because they recognize that synonyms don't have exactly the same meaning, and will try to use the word that most precisely represents the idea they want to get across. A poor writer may see the good writing, notice the large vocabulary, and seek to emulate it...by grabbing a thesaurus and using it to replace the words they originally used with sophisticated-sounding synonyms. That may make the writing look sophisticated, but to anyone who's familiar with what the words actually mean, it'll just come off as pretentious.

A particularly common case of this is the word "said". Quite a few poor writers hate having characters "say" something. They may articulate, vocalize, intone, report, recite, announce, voice, bark, or exclaim something, but certainly never just say it. Except usually when we say something, we do just "say" it, without bothering to do so in a special way. Good authors know this, and their writing will use the simple, but correct, "said".

Some very nice examples of this sort of pretentious and imprecise language are listed in Mark Twain's "Fenimore Cooper's Literary Offenses". (He also talks about the same issues I brought up in the first paragraph, and does so far more eloquently than I did, while using relatively simple language throughout.) Note that while there are a couple of places where Twain's suggested replacement is more "sophisticated" (or at least less common) than the word being replaced, in most cases, the more common word is also the more correct one (which makes sense; words are common because the ideas they represent come up a lot).

Cooper's word-sense was singularly dull. When a person has a poor ear for music he will flat and sharp right along without knowing it. He keeps near the tune, but is not the tune. When a person has a poor ear for words, the result is a literary flatting and sharping; you perceive what he is intending to say, but you also perceive that he does not say it. This is Cooper. He was not a word-musician. His ear was satisfied with the approximate words. I will furnish some circumstantial evidence in support of this charge. My instances are gathered from half a dozen pages of the tale called "Deerslayer." He uses "Verbal" for "oral"; "precision" for "facility"; "phenomena" for "marvels"; "necessary" for "predetermined"; "unsophisticated" for "primitive"; "preparation" for "expectancy"; "rebuked" for "subdued"; "dependent on" for "resulting from"; "fact" for "condition"; "fact" for "conjecture"; "precaution" for "caution"; "explain" for "determine"; "mortified" for "disappointed"; "meretricious" for "factitious"; "materially" for "considerably"; "decreasing" for "deepening"; "increasing" for "disappearing"; "embedded" for "inclosed"; "treacherous" for "hostile"; "stood" for "stooped"; "softened" for "replaced"; "rejoined" for "remarked"; "situation" for "condition"; "different" for "differing"; "insensible" for "unsentient"; "brevity" for "celerity"; "distrusted" for "suspicious"; "mental imbecility" for "imbecility"; "eyes" for "sight"; "counteracting" for "opposing"; "funeral obsequies" for "obsequies."

When writing, focus on the idea you want to get across, and choose words that most clearly and precisely accomplish this task. The resulting text may or may not be fancy, but it will be elegant.

5

As far as I'm concerned the sophistication of the vocabulary of a piece should match the sophistication of the character whose voice is used in the piece; if it is otherwise then the author is either being "clever-clever" or talking down to the audience, neither of which are endearing.

For example I would expect a professor of literature to use a lot of polysyllabic and/or archaic terminology and to have a proper and formal tone, if I got the same terminology and tone in narration from a young street thug it would be a problem, I expect simpler, more contemporary, language, a casual tone and at least a little slang for good measure.

So I don't think simple language is ever necessarily either "good" or "bad", but neither is complex language necessary. The sophistication of the vocabulary you use is another tool for the author to show the reader where they are and who they're dealing with.

3
+50

Q: When is a lack of long, sophisticated words to describe an otherwise simple concept bad?

A: Long, sophisticated words should be used for writing about extraordinary things.

Ordinary words are suitable for everyday things such as walking down the street, running for the bus, sheltering from the rain and sitting on the edge of the bed at night.

Long, sophisticated words are suitable for poetry and prose that describes and communicates such things as deep meditations on feeling and emotion; the sublime beauty of nature; the relationship between life and eternity; the almost indefinable sweetness of a reverie on a summer day; the innocence in the eyes of a child etc. etc.

But wait! What happens when extraordinary words are used for ordinary situations?

There is a depth to human experience that lies hidden beneath the layers of hum-drum living. When I walk down the street I don't just dwell on the surface of the things I see. I instead dive into the what-if and suppose-that of life.

That person coming towards me, walking with their gaze glued to the pavement and the tinny strains of ABBA spilling from the cans on their head - what if they were to look up and unleash on me eyes the colour of corn, a smile as sweet as sunshine, a voice as dulcet as devotion as they called out a merry 'good morn!' And suppose that this was my just-met soul-mate bursting into my life in all his (or her) morning glory! Would I not then be allowed to inject a little sophistication into my descriptions?

I think so.

Then let me then rewrite my answer.

Q: When is a lack of long, sophisticated words to describe an otherwise simple concept bad?

A: Long, sophisticated words should be used for writing about the extraordinary beauty to be found in ordinary things. Which is to say - use them whenever and however you can.

Life's too short for ordinary. Write effusively! Be as you are.

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