During a recent medical visit, I had the opportunity to be witnessed by and to witness a student doctor. At one point, my doctor briefly explained something to the student. Terminology passed my aural canal that had never done so before. I found myself in the interesting position to have heard something spoken in English that was completely incomprehensible to me.
The key here is that the exchange was brief. It was because of those esoteric words that my doctor was able to so efficiently communicate the concept. If there had not been terminology invented to say what he meant, the quick comment may have become a short lecture.
The lesson we take from this is that the perfect word can encapsulate much information, and so it pays to be brief. This is so even in story writing. Our goal, as writers, is to get the most information across to our readers in the most clear, efficient, and enjoyable way possible.
Of course, my anecdote also illustrates the problem. It is hardly efficient if your reader has to go to the dictionary five times a page just to understand what you are trying to say. It certainly isn’t very enjoyable to the reader (unless they LIKE the dictionary… and some of us word nerds actually do. I digress, but I guess you knew that since this is in parentheses.)
Take for instance, a phrase like â€œfurcated faienceâ€ recently found in a flash piece by my friend, Oliver Dale. Doesnâ€™t it sound exquisite? And it did exactly the job it was supposed to do. The sound of it appropriately evoked an image of more sinister import than â€œforking blue-green characteristicâ€ would have. But which one did you understand?
Writers often quest for the exact turn of phrase by which we can communicate the image or idea that lives only in our head until we commit the black to the white. As a result, the wordsmith often knows a good deal more vocabulary than the regular Joe on the street.
(Not to mention grammar. But precisely correct usage of the language tends to lead to more clarity, while usage of uncommon words usually has the opposite effect.)
So we are sometimes met with a dilemma â€“ the perfect word or being understood by a larger audience?
Some choose the smaller audience. True lovers of words, they write only to those with a passion equal to theirs. We usually call them literary snobs.
And others choose to write for the largest possible audience, carefully crafting thrillers understandable even to the barely literate. We usually call them journalists.
The rest, those who choose to write novels that will appeal to the typical reader? We usually call them sell-outs.
You thought I was going to conclude with some kind of pontification about how best to choose your words, right? So did I. But you know what? I donâ€™t really know. Only you (if you are a writer so inclined to care) can decide what your real goal in writing is and what your course of action should be.