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I have a problem; my natural writing style is very high-brow. It often utilizes complex, flowery language. Much of the time, however, I find that it gives the impression that I am but taking a simple sentence and substituting all small words with synonyms from a thesaurus.

I know precision is important: if a complex term yields a subtlety not present in its simpler counterpart, then it is more acceptable.

Are there any strategies that can augment this for making writing that sounds more authentic and less "thesaurus-y?" Perhaps one could use words that give interesting sentence structures?

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  • Are you writing fiction or non-fiction? Dec 7, 2018 at 23:21
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    This question shows that you are very capable of conveying precise thoughts with simple words.
    – NofP
    Dec 8, 2018 at 8:31
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    This question cries out for examples. You wrote your question with basic adult vocabulary words. So either you're misunderstanding what complex language is or you aren't showing us what you mean. Can you edit some into the actual question?
    – Cyn
    Dec 8, 2018 at 16:08
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    "Utilizes" vs "uses". "I tend to use large, obscure words when small, common words will do." When writing, choose your words and sentence structure based on the character who is speaking and what you want the reader to learn from it. Edit, edit, and then edit a bit more. Asimov wrote for common folk. Take out useless phrases. If your vocabulary provides the perfect word, use it, but don't say "utilize" unless there's a reason not to say "use". Kill your darlings. Trim the fat. Be brutal until the page says what you meant without the reader's eyes glazing over. Dec 10, 2018 at 21:59
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    @PaulHodges This answer would be better as an answer.
    – BillOnne
    Dec 16, 2022 at 16:10

9 Answers 9

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As long as the words are used correctly and, as you put it, for precision's sake, it should come off as naturally high-brow. One can tell a thesaurus junkie from one simple aspect; the writer doesn't use the correct word, but its second cousin.

As long as you're not doing that, be flowery to your heart's content.

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Are there any strategies that can augment this for making writing that sounds more authentic and less "thesaurus-y?"

In Non-Fiction: I don't believe there is a strategy, because "authentic" speech is just not filled with words that people must run to the dictionary (or pop up a dictionary on their phone) in order to understand. If you use words that 90% of people do not understand, that doesn't sound authentic, that only sounds pretentious.

For many it is actually annoying because it sounds abusively pompous and elitist, as if the speaker considers themselves above the common class.

I can use a thesaurus as well as the next spelling champ that spent twelve years in college, but the point of writing (non-fiction) is to communicate ideas, and the more words used that readers don't understand, the more opaque the writing, and the less your ideas are communicated. An occasional thesaurus word that is semi-defined by context (e.g. it is an insult, or praise, or term of frustration) can add spice, the meaning is not lost. "Oleaginous" (oily, greasy, slimy) was recently used in an editorial describing a distasteful person and made quite a stir, becoming a Google most searched term for a day. But the rest of the article it was used in was NOT written using words that had to be searched, so it served its purpose as a highlight.

In marketing (one of the fields I have studied outside of college), there is an aphorism, "If you highlight everything, you highlight nothing." Meaning if you highlight, bold, italicize, underline, box and enlarge things all over your advertisement, a reader's attention will not be drawn to any of it, it just makes the text difficult to read so it gets put down. But if you put a box around just one sentence on the page, you can be pretty sure people are going to read that one thing.

This applies to thesaurus words as well; if they are used sparingly, they make the prose better. But, like any spice, if they are overused they will overpower the dish and ruin it. some salt can make a dish better, too much renders it inedible.

In Fiction:

You can have a pretentious character in fiction if they are accompanied by at least one non-pretentious character. The frequent use of rare words is often used as an indicator of high education, or pretenses of a high education.

Elaborate speech to the point of opacity is also often used as a shield for the emotionally insecure, as if appearing to be of high social station, highly educated or of high intellect will win them a measure of respect and deference. In a similar sense, ornate words most people cannot easily define are often used to dress up otherwise boring or trite ideas (William F. Buckley Jr. pops into my head for some reason). Both of these are a type of fraud (inauthenticity) and part of the reason such speech is often disdained.

Nevertheless, knowing this is how they are perceived will let you develop fictional eloquent characters, and in fiction we can see their true nature and why they find it important to speak thusly.

As a general rule, don't send your readers to the dictionary very often, and if you use words that probably would to occasionally highlight something, it is best to use them when the context suggests at least the general category of the word; don't make the sentence unintelligible if the reader doesn't stop to look it up.

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Short answer? Don't

A good question to keep in mind when you're writing is, "Who is the intended audience?" If you want to get your point across to your intended audience, you should use language which they will easily understand. Flowery grammar and fancy words which make your message harder to understand are just not clear writing.

Nuanced answer: how you say something is a message in itself

People tend to think of "flowery" language, with complicated words and abstruse constructions, as "clever". In practice, retaining a sophisticated message while using fewer, simpler words is both more difficult and more valuable (and usually memorable - we call it "pithy"). But you can say more than your explicit message by selecting words what carry a certain "feel". If the real message is less the thing you're saying and more who you are, flowery and thesaurus-y will absolutely say something - not necessarily a positive thing.

The technical case

When you are communicating in a specialized field to people familiar with the conventions of that field, the appropriate jargon IS the simplest way to communicate. Ambulatory is obfuscation to a general audience - but to the medical community, it's the simplest way to remark that someone is both well enough and physically intact enough to walk. In other circles, that exact distinction about a person's physical functionality isn't a common enough thing to remark on that there has to be a specialized word.

When you are using technical jargon for the appropriate technical audience, it will sound natural and clear to the people your message is intended for.

Regarding "subtlety"

It is wonderful when you can select the perfect word, which carries the precise and subtle meaning you are thinking. It is not always the best thing to use that word. Going back to the question of intended audience - the blunt truth is that many audiences are indifferent to the subtle distinctions you want to draw (at least, that is my experience). If your word carries to your audience the perfect implications, your writing (or speaking) was successful - in that case. If the audience would have to pull out a dictionary (or read your mind) to understand what you mean, you have failed to communicate what you desired to communicate, even if the dictionary backs you up. People only have a limited amount of attention and patience, and if you exceed it, they won't listen.

Good writing both communicates your ideas and holds people's attention. If your word choice interferes with either of those objectives, it lowers the quality of your writing.

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First, write for yourself and your characters. If they have a more flowery way of speaking and thinking, embrace your vocabulary. If the words are natural to the situation, why worry?

I volunteered for a literacy program years ago and we were taught how to assess writing for the illiterate and how best to present it. If a work had short sentences and monosyllabic words, it could probably be read by a literacy student whose reading level is somewhere around grade five.

My current work proudly fails that test. I have sentences of varying lengths and am not afraid to use polysyllabic words when appropriate. I have several characters who think and speak more poetically than others and, while my overall style strives for clarity, I know that my diction will not strain most readers.

There are times when I am reading and encounter a perfect sentence or paragraph and must savour it. Had the author fretted about diction, it would have been much less. Christopher Fry sometimes launches into imagery that just stops me cold - must reread it and enjoy the play of words that only seem to tumble, yet shine.

Unless you are writing a children’s book or something for young adults, just write as comes naturally to you.

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To quote from my comment above:

"Utilizes" vs "uses".

"I tend to use large, obscure words when small, common words will do."

When writing, choose your words and sentence structure based on the character who is speaking and what you want the reader to learn from it. Edit, edit, and then edit a bit more. Asimov wrote for common folk. Take out useless phrases. If your vocabulary provides the perfect word, use it, but don't say "utilize" unless there's a reason not to say "use".

Kill your darlings. Trim the fat. Be brutal until the page says what you meant without the reader's eyes glazing over.

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John Steinbeck is considered by many to have introduced the "plain-English" prose style known as the journalistic voice. He forsakes big words and writes more shorter sentences to achieve communication of an idea of any complexity.

Have you read any Steinbeck? He helped me dial back my writing style which resembled Poe: I wrote very long sentences that systematically teased the full nuance out of the writing story with those long sentences in which I used semicolons to hold it all together in the reader's mind before closing the thought with a period when I was done.

Now I strive for short and impactful over effectively writing an algorithm to faithfully express what I wanted to say :).

Read any Steinbeck book (Bonus! They are all short!). It will not only be well worth your time for the entertainment, but will show you how effective simple sentences can be!

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I suppose it depends largely on the context of your writing. If you're writing for a more general audience composed of just your average reader, then taking a few moments to edit your work, replacing complex words with more commonly used ones and simplifying sentence structure, would be a good start. This is not to say that you have to simplify your idea beyond comprehension or that you have to edit so much that it takes away from the meaning of your work, but keep in mind that people read best when the information is presented to them in a way they can understand. If you're writing to a more specific audience, for example, people you know will have a background in academia, you can afford to elevate your language because these people are more used to reading with complex sentence structure and vocabulary.

Every word in the English language serves a purpose given a specific context, so my advice is to use the word that BEST describes what it is you're talking about- just because flowerly language sounds elegant doesn't mean it's best suited to what you are trying to write!

That being said, there is always going to be a difference between writing that sounds complex and writing that sounds pretentious, even though both usually draw from the same pool of vocabulary and have similar sentence structures- if you're still unsure, have somebody else read it for you! Ask them to let you know what they think, I'm sure they will be honest!

Hope this helped!

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Are there any strategies that can augment this for making writing that sounds more authentic and less "thesaurus-y?"

Why good, sir, this quotation of your query contains the panacea for the your present predicament in your justified phobia that you partiality to loquacious verbiage will verily vex those who count themselves among the less than voracious bibliophiles of the vox polpuli, who find themselves drawn to the scripts of the vulgare and less verbose. Those typical philistines who would be baffled by the lack of specificiacity in a chosen linguistical style of the narrative may not comprehend the true value of the locution worthy of the bard himself can find merriment in the farcical admission that one so gifted in knowledge of such elegant witticism admits that he himself is not above the resorting to the invention of a nonsense word such as "thesaurus-y" in his final plea for assistance in his quest to assert his commitment to the use of a vocabulary of learned men. Why they may even find the discongruity of the whole situation droll, and might, as I had done prior to my endeavor to enlighten, laugh their ass off!

Okay, enough of that purple prose. This is one tried and true way to bring some engagement. While those that aren't into flowery language will find their eyes glaze over, a sudden change from sophisticated to unsophisticated language or the use of one in a situation where the other is traditional. This type of humor is can help get to the point across, in a way that maybe atypical of the language expected in the build up.

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Using too big words can be a sign of various problems which, as you can guess, require different remedies, but when I tried to go through them all I soon got overwhelmed and lost. But there's one possible situation that I'd like to address.

Maybe you're more comfortable and confident with the big words than you are with the small ones. Small words just don't occur to you, or you aren't sure if you're using them right.

Does it sound crazy? It's certainly very counterintuitive, but this actually happens to a lot of people. Ask me how I know.

There are several root causes this may stem from. Maybe you've read too much old classics, doorstopper romances, and academic articles trying to sound smarter than they really are, and you just got so used to the shiny world of the big words that you kind of forgot your way about the humble realm of the small words.

Maybe you're neurodivergent and your brain works in mysterious ways. Perhaps it's bold of me to insinuate this might be your case, but for those who are, unusual patterns of verbal expression, puzzling to the neurotypical, are fairly common. Overblown usage of big words is probably the most widespread of those unusual styles of expression. So.

Or maybe you're writing in a language other than your first. This is likely to be a language you learned in school or some course which put more emphasis on teaching the formal and "proper" styles than the casual, a language you don't get to practice much in everyday conversation but rather through media consumption, and a language that contains a lot of internationally used big words you know from your first language, but whose small words are native and thus alien to you.

Does any of the above ring a bell?

Sorry, I meant - does any of the aforementioned sound familiar?

Despair not, my friend. If this is the issue you're struggling with, you may need to just expand your vocabulary into the realm of small words. Expose yourself to sources of plain, simple, everyday language. Make friends with it. Make yourself at home. Work to get intimately close with the most basic of words you can hear. Take them to bed and cuddle. I swear they don't bite.

If you can be at ease with the small words and make them your best buddies that will readily come to your mind when you need them, then you can show them the way into your writing at long last.

And the thesaurus? Believe it or not, it can help you too. Put the big word that's in your head in it and see if it can offer you a smaller alternative. Chances are, it might.

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