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To be completely honest, my English vocabulary isn’t that advanced. Currently, my writing-style is very simple and easy to understand. It doesn’t use extremely advanced wording to express things. I’m afraid that because of this my writing my seem inferior to others, but I’m also afraid that if I use complicated words, it may seem unnatural for my characters. Do readers care about this sort of thing?

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    "but I’m also afraid that if I use complicated words, it may seem unnatural for my characters" <<< Note that the narrator and the dialogues don't necessarily have to use the same style, especially if written in third-person.
    – Stef
    Commented Jan 3 at 13:10
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    Also note the distinction between "It is unnatural for my characters to use advanced words" and "It sounds unnatural when I make my characters use advanced words, because it is unnatural for me to use advanced words". The former can be solved by making your characters use simpler words; the latter can be solved by reading many books so that writing with more advanced words becomes more natural for you.
    – Stef
    Commented Jan 3 at 15:51
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    The title of Hemingway's "The Old Man and the Sea" is just six evocative three letter words ... Commented Jan 3 at 20:22
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    You might also consider writing in your first language (assuming that it is not English). I would generally assume that writing with a vocabulary one is comfortable with will yield the best results. Commented Jan 4 at 6:09
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    @Peter-ReinstateMonica had good advice. You could translate into English afterword, or have someone else do it.
    – WGroleau
    Commented Jan 5 at 16:47

7 Answers 7

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You can use simple language, if you want a good example read passages from the Harry Potter series. It is written for children, but enjoyed by tens of millions of adults as well.

(Except, as Steven King says, JKR never met an adverb she didn't like! Unless you truly intend to write for children, avoiding adverbs would be one way to improve upon JKR's writing. )

The traps I see for an ESL writer is using several simple words when one commonly used word would work better. Or misusing a word; e.g. saying "angry" instead of "upset", which carry different connotations to native English speakers.

I once saw a passage along the lines of "angers the arrangement", in which the ESL writer clearly meant "upsets the arrangement". "angry" and "upset" are synonyms in a certain context but not interchangeable in every context.

But yes, Harry Potter, the best selling series of novels of all time, is written in English intended to be accessible to ten year old native English speakers.

Other than the frequent use of adverbs it is a style of prose worth studying; whether or not you like the story.

Avoiding adverbs: Use better verbs and imagery. Instead of "He ate very quickly", you can say "He devoured the meal like a starved animal, hardly pausing to breathe."

Instead of "Josh made his moves quickly", "Josh never hesitated in making his moves, the moment his opponent's hand left a piece, Josh made his move, as if he anticipated his opponent's every possible move and response."

Instead of "Mike moved stealthily closer to the dock","Mike remained still as a statue observing the watchman for the slightest inattention, and taking advantage of every instance to move silent as a shadow ever closer to the dock."

You can replace adverbs with better dialogue; you can use metaphors and similes. This will take more words, but people that read for entertainment do not mind reading. Especially if it builds up imagery in their mind.

That is what they are there for, to "see" in their imagination the story you are telling. Simple words can still paint the scene.

[Edit for clarification: The first three books of Harry Potter were explicitly targeted at the 8-year old reading level in the UK. As the characters aged, JKR gradually upgraded the language to older readers as well.]

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    Are we reading the same Harry Potter? It's filled with vocabulary that I rarely see elsewhere (and would not consider basic in the least), like swarthy and wizened. It's probably the source that I see asked about the most on ELL SE, though a lot of that is because it uses complicated sentence structure or grammar.
    – Laurel
    Commented Jan 3 at 15:32
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    @Laurel Editors regard it as a suitable novel for young adults, that was my point, and JKR has sold half a billion copies of it. The first three books (Sorcerer's Stone, Chamber of Secrets, Prisoner of Azkaban) are all specifically targeted at 8 to 10 year olds. Later books upgrade the target age as the characters age; which was JKR's choice; rather than keeping the characters as forever 11 years old (as they were in the first book). She wanted to follow them growing up (having experienced that with her own three children), it would provide new material for the character's personal stories.
    – Amadeus
    Commented Jan 3 at 17:31
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    Since the question asked about simple writing, Harry Potter is an anti-example since it shows that even children can really enjoy complicated writing. (I was younger than 10 when I first started reading it.)
    – Laurel
    Commented Jan 3 at 17:38
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    @Laurel and as I said, the first three books of Harry Potter (which I presume is where you began) are geared to an 8 year old reading level in the UK. I think an 8 year old reading level is simple writing.
    – Amadeus
    Commented Jan 3 at 22:06
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    Considerably younger children enjoy having Harry Potter read to them, and follow the story without needing to interrupt for explanations. That suggests the context makes many of the harder words clear enough, where "clear enough" varies from perfect understanding to realising that the exact meaning doesn't matter in this case. Of course misunderstandings that don't spoil the enjoyment are also possible. (@Laurel)
    – Chris H
    Commented Jan 4 at 10:06
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You don't have to use complicated words. Clearly, the text that you write will be "simpler", in the sense that you won't be using a rich vocabulary to write a good story, but this doesn't mean that it makes the story simple. Take for instance The Road by Cormac McCarthy. The vocabulary is very simple, but the story nonetheless is incredibly meaningful and moving. The book won the Pulitzer Prize.

On the other hand, there is Tinkers by Paul Harding using "complicated" words, which makes reading it very difficult, but also very rewarding. This book also won the Pulitzer Prize.

So both styles are respectable in their own right. It's true that some readers care for more sophisticated language, but for every snob, you will have one "anti-snob", who prefers the simple language over the sophisticated one.

Finally, characters tend to use simpler language in natural speech anyway, exactly as you mention. So if you have, say, a physicist in real life, they are not going to say that "the polyethylene pipes in the walls conduct thermal energy into the interior of the establishment." A simple "the pipes cool the room" makes far more sense, in real life, and in fiction. So when it comes to dialogue, simpler language is preferred.

Unless, of course, you want your character to be obnoxious/weird. Then the first sentence might be better.

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Here is the opening paragraph of The Old Man and the Sea, considered one of the great works of US literature:

He was an old man who fished alone in a skiff in the Gulf Stream and he had gone eighty-four days now without taking a fish. In the first forty days a boy had been with him. But after forty days without a fish the boy’s parents had told him that the old man was now definitely and finally salao, which is the worst form of unlucky, and the boy had gone at their orders in another boat which caught three good fish the first week. It made the boy sad to see the old man come in each day with his skiff empty and he always went down to help him carry either the coiled lines or the gaff and harpoon and the sail that was furled around the mast. The sail was patched with flour sacks and, furled, it looked like the flag of permanent defeat.

Note that, apart from a few technical terms, the language is very simple. In particular, the words that are used are very simple. This suggests you don't have to know many complex words to write a good story.

In fact, Hemmingway was famous for choosing very simple and very direct language. It creates a forceful writing style that is easy to follow. This is good advice for beginning writers: try to say things in the simplest way that is still accurate. Even if it sounds childish, or simply weird, leave it there, and come back to it in the edit. Often you will will find, on second reading that it has a ring to it. Or, you will find a way to rewrite it that makes it sound more natural, but that keeps the simplicity.

Notice how simple and direct phrases like "It made the boy sad ..." and "He was an old man ..." are. They are extended into longer sentences, but the basis is about as direct and plain as you can make it. That's one way of doing it, start with sentences that are that simple, and then add anything you feel that is missing. If nothing is missing, then "He was an old man." might just be the only thing you need to say.

Of course, just because the language is simple, that doesn't mean that it's easy to write like Hemmingway. To illustrate, let's highlight some things he does, despite the simplicity of his writing, that require work and skill.

  • Detailed setting. You can tell by the technical terms and the descriptions of the way the boat is rigged out, that Hemmingway really knows the setting of the story. He knows that Santiago (the main character) would sail a skiff, and that old flour sacks would be the cheapest way to patch a sail. He also knows about the local superstitions, and that boys go out to sail from a young age. And he crams it all into one paragraph. In his case this probably comes from setting the story in a place he knew, and living with an eye for detail while he was there. If you don't have that kind of intimate knowledge about your setting, you'll have to read up.
  • A good ear. Note that he says he had gone eighty-four days now without taking a fish. Not catching a fish, with would be more common. Both are equally simple, but for some reason Hemmingway preferred taking. Perhaps because he knew that that is how a fisherman would describe it, or perhaps because catching just sounded wrong to him. This shows that even though you don't need to know a lot of words, you still need to know how sentences sound, and what they evoke in the reader. In short, you still have to develop your English, it just may be more about developing your ear for the language than about learning new words.
  • Rhythm. There are ways in which Hemmingway's writing is less simple than it could be. He uses long sentences, and adds little details here and there. It takes a lot of skill to do this without things getting messy, and the reader losing the plot. One tool he has is that his writing is very rhythmic. Reading it out loud, you don't have to guess where the stresses come, and what's next, even though the third sentences, describes five different things that could each have been a sentence by themselves.
  • Vivid imagery His detailed knowledge of the setting allows Hemmingway to insert details that bring the scene to life and help with the rhythm of the sentences. Note the word coiled in "carry either the coiled lines or the gaff and the harpoon ...". That sentence would work just as well without noting that the lines were coiled. Why did he add that? I think because it helps the rhythm, but also because the detail that the lines were coiled up, helps to set the scene. In the final sentences, he even allows himself some metaphorical imagery, to hammer home how miserable Santiago's luck is. His patched-up sail looks like a flag of defeat.

So looking back, what does this mean for you as an aspiring writer with limited English? The bad news is that you do have to work at developing your skill in English. The good news is that the simple, direct sentences you can write already are a great starting point. You don't have to wait until you can write like Jane Austen. You can start writing stories, and while you do, develop your ear for the way people speak and write and the words they use. In fact, the act of writing will help you a lot in paying more attention to the way people use language.

Second, there are many skills that make good writing, which transfer from one language to another. You need to be able to imagine a scene in detail, and to have the knowledge to make those details believable. For this, it doesn't matter what language you speak. Moreover, you need to have a good sense of rhythm. This doesn't have to be the rhythm of English. In fact many famous English writers whose native language wasn't English, wrote very beautifully precisely because they brought a foreign rhythm to the English language.

So, in short, get started with writing, and write as simply as you can. If anything more complex is needed, it will develop naturally so long as you keep writing.

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  1. Who are your target audience? If you are writing for the average person and want them to understand you and enjoy your book, you need to keep your language simple. If you write for readers with an academic education, you can use more rare and difficult words and sentence constructions.

  2. Who is your narrator? If the story is narrated by someone from an uneducated background, he or she should talk that way, as well as according to their personality.

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I’ve always found King’s take on vocabulary in On Writing to be memorable and clear. For context, this is an excerpt from a larger section where he discusses his writing toolbox (aka the skills to get the job done).

Put your vocabulary on the top shelf of your toolbox, and don’t make any conscious effort to improve it. (You’ll be doing that as you read, of course… but that comes later.) One of the really bad things you can do to your writing is to dress up the vocabulary, looking for long words because you’re maybe a little bit ashamed of your short ones. This is like dressing up a household pet in evening clothes. The pet is embarrassed and the person who committed this act of premeditated cuteness should be even more embarrassed. Make yourself a solemn promise right now that you’ll never use “emolument” when you mean “tip” and you’ll never say John stopped long enough to perform an act of excretion when you mean John stopped long enough to take a shit. If you believe “take a shit” would be considered offensive or inappropriate by your audience, feel free to say John stopped long enough to move his bowels (or perhaps John stopped long enough to “push”). I’m not trying to get you to talk dirty, only plain and direct. Remember that the basic rule of vocabulary is use the first word that comes to your mind, if it is appropriate and colorful. If you hesitate and cogitate, you will come up with another word—of course you will, there’s always another word—but it probably won’t be as good as your first one, or as close to what you really mean.

This business of meaning is a very big deal. If you doubt it, think of all the times you’ve heard someone say “I just can’t describe it” or “That isn’t what I mean.” Think of all the times you’ve said those things yourself, usually in a tone of mild or serious frustration. The word is only a representation of the meaning; even at its best, writing almost always falls short of full meaning. Given that, why in God’s name would you want to make things worse by choosing a word which is only cousin to the one you really wanted to use?

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  • I don't find this advice all that clear. It begins with "don’t make any conscious effort to improve your vocabulary", but ends with "using the right word to convey the right meaning is extremely important". The only logical link to reconcile these two seemingly directly opposite pieces of advice is "the first word you think off will probably be much better than the other words you can think of". This assumption maybe works for him, a super-experienced writer who has written 100 books and has read thousands of books, but it seems unhelpfully optimistic for anyone who isn't him.
    – Stef
    Commented Jan 5 at 14:08
  • PS: After writing my previous comment but before clicking "Add comment", I have changed several of the words that I was using, as I found that the second word I could think of was much better than the first. For instance, I changed "contradictory" to "opposite"; "very" to "unhelpfully"; and "inexperienced writers" to "anyone who isn't him".
    – Stef
    Commented Jan 5 at 14:11
  • @Stef I mostly left the first sentence in because the parenthetical mirrored one of your comments and I thought it should be preserved in an answer. I also don't see how these two pieces of advice are opposite, you did connect the two with text from the passage after all... Like any writing advice, ymmv. It's best to figure out what works for you, but I still think the general advice of "use the first word that comes to your mind" is valid (especially given OP's question).
    – GammaGames
    Commented Jan 5 at 15:35
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It depends!

Different target audiences have different vocabularies (on average). Both the audiences and the vocabularies are also suitable for different stories.

A story should be written in a vocabulary that enhances it. A story that is written to amuse weary travelers flying in airplanes will have a straightforward plot and commonplace vocabulary, for ease. A story that delves into complex notions or intellectual subfields will use the vocabulary to convey those.

For one thing they would probably have different point of view characters. Obviously a harried bank-teller who accidentally got caught in some dramatic plot will have a different point of view, and use different language, from a scholar tracking down some knowledge -- and obviously those would be used for different stories.

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As someone who tends to disagree with and reject virtually all writing and style manuals, guides and prescriptions, I can reasonably get behind Gustave Flaubert’s insight that writing (to me) feels satisfying (often) when you strive, in accordance with your subjective intuition, to find the right word - le mot juste. This tautology is not meaningless, rather, it is one of the only truisms about writing I find meaningful; it fails to adequately describe the totality of writing when someone claims “writing should be like this or that” (it should be concise, it should use simple language, it should use sensory language, whatever). Different writing styles and goals have different effects. It depends completely on what you want to try to do, in the writing.

Taking the time to ask yourself if you think the sentence sounds good to you, if it sounds as perfect as possible, or as good as it needs to be, in whatever way you want it to be, is in my opinion more helpful than following an arbitrary rule of thumb like “you should/should not use ‘sophisticated’ words”.


From Wikipedia:

Flaubert famously avoided the inexact, the abstract and the vaguely inapt expression, and scrupulously eschewed the cliché. In a letter to George Sand he said that he spent his time "trying to write harmonious sentences, avoiding assonances".

Flaubert believed in and pursued the principle of finding "le mot juste" ("the right word"), which he considered as the key means to achieve high quality in literary art. He worked in sullen solitude, sometimes occupying a week in the completion of one page, never satisfied with what he had composed. In Flaubert's correspondence he intimates this, explaining correct prose did not flow out of him and that his style was achieved through work and revision. Flaubert said he wished to forge a style "that would be rhythmic as verse, precise as the language of the sciences, undulant, deep-voiced as a cello, tipped with flame: a style that would pierce your idea like a dagger, and on which your thought would sail easily ahead over a smooth surface, like a skiff before a good tail wind." He famously said that "an author in his book must be like God in the universe, present everywhere and visible nowhere."

This painstaking style of writing is also evident when one compares Flaubert's output over a lifetime to that of his peers (for example Balzac or Zola). Flaubert published much less prolifically than was the norm for his time and never got near the pace of a novel a year, as his peers often achieved during their peaks of activity. Walter Pater famously called Flaubert the "martyr of style".

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