Write On- Notes from a writer’s conference-readers are not dumb!


The art of writing

I just spent a fabulous weekend at a writer’s conference, The Pacific Northwest Writer’s Association’s conference in Seattle Washington and thought I would write a few posts about the weekend.  The weekend was busy, noisy, and quite an adventure. I haven’t been to a writer’s conference in years, since the last one I attended  I  helped get agents and authors to another conference.  This time I was on the other side of the fence, meeting new friends, pitching a finished project to agents and going to various lectures.

At one of the lectures, the agents expressed depression and frank dismay at the current trend to write down to the reader. It’s not the first time I’ve heard this. There was an article published recently where the author advocated not using big words. In other words- dumbing down the writing- as  readers don’t like to come across words they don’t know. I find that incredulous and insulting to say the least.

When I was young, I was a voracious reader and often came across words that I didn’t know. I tried to take a short cut and went to my father for help. His response? Look it up in the dictionary. For my tenth Christmas present, he gave me an illustrated copy of the Oxford English Dictionary, which I still own. I resented that as a child. Why, I would protest, if you know what the word is; you won’t tell me! I would stomp off, but I would open the dictionary, look up the word, learn the word, and retain it, or it slipped away.

I do not believe for one second that readers want to be treated as morons incapable of looking up a new word, or even the sheer arrogance of assuming readers can’t read big words.

I echo the agent’s dismay. Part of the glory of reading is how a writer uses the language and how if one word is better than another, and my God, if it is a big word, use it! It will enrich the writing. It will enhance the experience of reading.

I’d love to hear your thoughts on this one! More posts to come from the writer’s conference including my pitch session or how I got grew hair in just a three-minute pitch session!

About susan sheldon nolen

It’s rare to catch me without coffee, a form of camera, or my beloved wire fox terriers. I love the history, the art, and it’s a massive part of my life, as I either paint, write, or get interrupted by my dogs, reminding me of the real world. I hope you enjoy your time here. It’s such a privilege to have readers.
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16 Responses to Write On- Notes from a writer’s conference-readers are not dumb!

  1. Carrie Rubin says:

    I am so glad to see someone post on this. I thought about doing an entry on it myself. I really get tired of hearing that we should use the more simple word if one exists. In fact, I just had this discussion with my husband the other night. I said one of the reasons my kids are so bright and have such strong vocabularies is because they read a lot. And not just junky stuff but classics and other challenging reading materials. My 15 year-old-son just used the term “deux ex machina” the other night. Properly! And I’ve certainly never said it to him. How many teenagers throw out that expression? (And yes, I imagine that you’re surprised to learn that the same 15 year old who provides my “offal” is actually quite articulate. 🙂 )

    I sometimes toss out “big” words on my blog, because I like the way they come across. Even with drivel, bigger words make it sound better (think “scatology”–a word I employ quite frequently 🙂 ). Obviously, I have not peppered my novel with words that require a dictionary, but a few might have slipped in.

    Whew! Guess you touched a nerve in me. And I’m glad you did, because I couldn’t agree more!

  2. I just wish I could put across the pain and dismay from the agents! I love your usage of Scatology! I am not sure where all this came from. It might be a tie over from the pre-Hemingway days where writing was florid and has just been watered down to keep it simple, use shorter words rather than longer words. I hope the trend changes and I am so glad to find a kindred spirit!

    • Carrie Rubin says:

      And I think there’s a difference between “flowery” prose and prose with longer words. Myself, I’m not such a fan of long, drawn-out paragraphs. But a sentence packed with nuance using unexpected words in a clever fashion? I’m there.

      In relaying my opinion in such a manner, one would think my book is loaded with lovely prose and clever passages. Sadly, it’s not. Partly because I wrote it years ago before I’d had much practice (though I’ve rewritten it a few times). And partly because my goal was to write a mainstream novel that would entice a reader to turn the page for the story, not for the words I used. But mostly because I’m not that great of a writer. 🙂

  3. Pseu says:

    Surely its about the juxtaposition of words from a good vocabulary in the right balance: that is the balance between appropriate and educated but not showing off?
    I love a writer who can get the balance right, but not one who uses longer, less commonly used words for the sake of it.
    My father used to send me off to the dictionary too. But nowadays its simple to find a word… just google it! No excuse for not looking up a word one doesn’t know.

    • It is always a balance. I shudder at always always prefer the shorter word. Several articles have been promoting this enough for agents to comment on submissions they have been receiving. I prefer the right word versus the shortest! 🙂

  4. Cameron says:

    I love my words. Long ones, short ones, ugly ones, there’s a word for everything, and everything in the words. I like to think I write up to my writers. I love romances and fantasies, light reading I’m told, but I always use the word I like best in the moment, not the easiest one.

  5. How bland to read a book of elementary words that do nothing to challenge the reader. With the proliferation of e-readers, it is easier than ever to find out what a word means by simply clicking on it for a definition. Perhaps if we all follow the 50 Shades model, and use the words ‘holy crap’ on every page for over 500 pages, we will all be published within a year.

    What’s frustrating about this for me is this: there are people who are out to make a buck by selling a book, and there are people who want to deal in good books. I hope I end up with the latter, though whether I can write a good book remains to be seen.

    I hope you escaped the English rain in Seattle. This time of year usually isn’t too bad there.

    • Andra, I so agree with your comment. The agents feel the same way also. They love reading and they love books! I have escaped rain even though there was a massive thunder storm! I think it’s just going to be that kind of summer!

  6. paralaxvu says:

    The only reason I like my Kindle so much is that, when I come across a word I don’t know I can just press on the word and the dictionary comes up to explain it. Yay! No more running to Dad OR the book! Am I lazy, or what? But I love words. Thesauruses are my best friends! When someone asks me what a word I’ve used means, sometimes I have to send them to the dictionary because I know what it means and it is exactly the word I wanted and if I had wanted another one or six I would have used it/them to mean that.

  7. I’, with you, Susan. While we must bear in mind the audience, sometimes I think it is an artist’s job to carve the way forward. Where would James Joyce have been if he had ditched those amazing ideas and written a bestselling thriller instead?

  8. Pingback: Tuesday Tip « Adventures in Writing

  9. virginiagruver says:

    I totally agree. It is even easier for the modern reader. We now have a dictionary and thesaurus app to look up new words.

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