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A writer’s natural love of words can lead to wonderful reading and interesting writing. But sometimes, a logophile’s good intentions to introduce the world to unique vocabulary can backfire. Is it time to put away your dictionary and revert to a middle-school word list?
Writer’s Relief explains why you might want to avoid uncommon words or phrases—and why you might still want to use them. Read this before you find yourself hoisted by your own petard!
Problem Scenarios For Using Unusual Words In Creative Writing
Colloquial words. Every dialect has its own unique words. For example: “stoop” (a small front porch) and “hutch” (a large cabinet) are words that are commonly used in the northeast, but not so much in other parts of the country. Without strong context cues, readers may be tripped up by unfamiliar words.
Writing a character with an accent. Some readers simply despise long passages of dialogue that try to recreate the sound of words spoken with an accent. Reading phonetically spelled dialogue slows the reading process down—and unless your characters speak very slowly, it augments the friction between reading and experiencing. Most modern writers opt instead to occasionally hint at heavily accented words to give the impression of an accent.
Obscure words. Words with precise and esoteric meanings can sometimes distract from a reader’s experience rather than enhance it. Saying “empyrean” instead of “celestial” might sound heavenly to some ears, but your readers don’t want to be running to the dictionary every other sentence.
Very long words. Unless your reading audience is a room full of literary scholars (and, okay, it may well be!), average readers may get hung up on long and hard-to-pronounce words. “Floccinaucinihilipilification” won’t just knock your readers flat—it will back up and run over them again. Say “estimated that it’s worthless” instead.
Words that have been taken from other languages. Words that have been absorbed into English from other languages can sometimes feel obscure, pretentious, or inauthentic if not used carefully. To say something is “de rigueur” might feel natural to you, but is it part of the common parlance of your reader?
Words that you invent. When the right word doesn’t exist, it’s within an author’s rights to make one up. You might even say it’s necessary that writers invent words. What would we do if Shakespeare hadn’t invented words like advertising, hint, tranquil, and more? The key is to invent with care and to lean heavily on context cues.
General wordiness. Even if you’re not sprinkling your writing with the sorts of words mentioned in this article, there’s always the danger of falling into the trap of using unnecessary wordiness for dramatic emphasis (sometimes called overwriting).
Yes, You Can And Should Use Unusual Words In Your Writing
Making unusual word choices in writing might make your readers scratch their heads or look twice—but if we all played it safe, how dull reading would be! Characters who adore words lifted from foreign languages are great fun. Long words are gloriously entertaining. Colloquial words are vital to verisimilitude. By all means—use unusual words—we implore you! Just do so with care and attention to craft.
Question: Do you believe that unusual words help or hurt creative writing?