Just words

This post is going to be about words, starting with Maddie’s question on November 11, 2010: I have a little spell-checker on my computer. It also tells me the average reading level of the stuff that I’m writing, and it’s not huge. Is it always necessary to add in bigger words, or is it ok to not use huge words as long as your plot is suitably twisted? (i.e., I don’t want to be the next Dr. Seuss, although I do love his stuff… :D)

My advice is to ignore the reading level on your spell checker, because it doesn’t tell you much that’s meaningful. Word length and reading level based on word length and average number of words in each sentence may determine the age of the child who can read a particular book, but they have nothing to do with the age of the child who should read it. Animal Farm (middle school and up) by George Orwell is a perfect example. I read it when I was in third or fourth grade and thought it an interesting story about animals. The allegory flew over my head until my older sister let me in on the secret.

In the case of Animal Farm, it’s not a matter of plot twists either. The story is straightforward, no subplots that I remember; the book is only 128 pages long. What’s sophisticated is the meaning.

Another example is What Jamie Saw by Carolyn Coman, which is a miracle of a book. It’s told from the POV of a nine-year-old boy. Very simple story, also no plot complications that I recall, only 126 pages long, yet it’s a young adult book, definitely not for actual nine-year-olds. In this case, the reason is the subject, which is child abuse.

I like short words (and long and medium-size ones). Short words have power. And so do short sentences. They’re punchy. Sometimes we can get a good rhythm going with short sentences – and sometimes with long.

POV is another determinant of the sort of vocabulary that best suits a story. In What Jamie Saw, the author was limited to words that Jamie would know, and he wasn’t a child vocabulary prodigy. If you’re telling your story from the POV of a child or someone without much education, you’re stuck with a limited vocabulary. But even if your POV character is erudite, she may prefer not to show off her erudition. She may like to be simple and clear, even when she’s in a complicated situation or dealing with a difficult subject, like chaos theory. The sesquipedalian word may come to her only when it’s the sole way to express an idea.

When you’re using a third-person narrator, it’s up to you and whatever serves your story.

When I’m reading I like to come upon a few words to look up, but I don’t want to need my dictionary three times in every paragraph. When I write I don’t dumb down my vocabulary for kids. If they need to go to the dictionary more often than I enjoy as a reader, that’s okay. They’re kids, and their vocabularies need building. On the other hand, I don’t want to write an impenetrable book. Sometimes I help by making a meaning clear through context.

A convoluted plot is unconnected to word choice. You can tell a complex story using simple language or six-syllable vocabulary. I don’t think most third graders will be able to follow a tale that weaves together six subplots, for example. Adults will get lost too in a Byzantine plot. I will, and I’ll give up unless I’m completely in love with some element of the story.

Moving along to a related topic, Mysterygirl, Alexandra, April, and Marissa, all posted comments about words that were banned in school. Some teachers called these “jail” words, mostly simple words. Mysterygirl gave examples: good, bad, said, sad, mad, happy, grumpy, big, small, medium, love, calm. One of April’s teachers hated nice.

I sympathize with these teachers, who want to develop their students’ vocabularies. If this is what your teacher is demanding, I suggest going along in your school work. I’d say go your teachers one better. Wow them. For example, instead of grumpy, give them irascible, peevish, querulous, vinegarish. Use your thesaurus. It will help all your writing. For the heck of it, try for words your teachers will have to look up – unless they have no sense of humor.

After you blow your teacher away with your fab vocab, you might ask for an exemption from her rule just for you, unless everyone in your class will hate you. But if you don’t get the exemption, tough it out.

And in the stories you’re not writing for school, forget about jail words and words that are allowed to run free. The dictionary is your pasture. Graze at will on the weeds along with the grass and the flowers. Be a free-range writer.

Out of curiosity I just did a word search on the word nice in one of my Princess Tales, Cinderellis and the Glass Hill. In that book I used nice eleven times, which I was aware of and did deliberately. The main characters in this book are simple people, even though one of them is a princess. Nice appears in the thoughts of the two mains. It’s what they’re both looking for. I used pleasant once, amiable not at all. Amiable wouldn’t have fit the tone I’d set.

Having said that, I am alert to word repetition when I write and when I edit. If I think I’m overusing a word, I write it in a list above my story, and when I’m done, I search for the word. If it is showing up too much, I hunt for synonyms to substitute. My editor is amazing at picking up word repetition too. She catches the ones I miss.

Obviously there are words we have to use again and again. Prepositions are unavoidable, for example, and we can’t do without the appearing a million times.

Marissa’s teacher didn’t let her students use the word said. Again, if you have to listen to your teacher, you have to. But said is a special case, and it should be used repeatedly. I devote an entire chapter to said in Writing Magic. In brief, said (and ask, too) disappear. We see who’s speaking and move on. Substitute words, like exclaim, question, state, just draw attention to themselves and away from the action and what’s being said. What’s more, exclaim and question and query are unnecessary because the punctuation tells us everything. Words like vocalize and express are simply awful, in my opinion.

Sometimes repetition sets up a rhythm that’s pleasing, and sometimes you want to break the rhythm. Sometimes you’re not sure and just have to pick, and sometimes both choices are equal. Aaa! Writing is hard!

Here’s a prompt:

I learned to read on the Dick and Jane books, which were heavy on repetition and low on excitement, but they did the job for me. Below are four sentences from one of the books. I don’t know why each sentence gets its own line within a single quotation:

Father said, “Down, Spot.
Run away, Spot.
You can not go.
You can not go in the car.”

There’s drama here. I wouldn’t want anybody’s father to tell the family dog to run away. Your challenge is to rewrite the dialogue at least three ways, fooling around with vocabulary. Father’s speech can go on for four pages. He can be a vampire if you like or whatever else. Spot can be a talking dog or a werewolf.

If you want to, turn the situation into a story, a novel, a seven-book series.

Have fun, and save what you write!

  1. My tone is usually short and punchy. So are my characters. Well, maybe not short, but they're punchy. As a result, I get a lot of word repitition. A fun visual representation of my words is a word cloud from Wordle (http://www.wordle.net/). I copy and paste my text into the box and it generates a cluster of my most commonly used words. The words I used most often are the largest. I just did it for one of my chapter books and got one, back, like, asked, thought, looked, put, and around as some of the most common words. Does that mean more advanced readers shouldn't read it? I don't think so. Especially since it deals with gender roles and society's unwritten rules. So, I'm in agreement with the post. Word choice is important, but sometimes plot and point of view influence the choice.

    P.S. I would discourage saving a word cloud to the net because it becomes public. You can print it for your own use, though.

  2. I'm a complex sentence kinda gal. Probably because I am terrible about using punctuation XD.
    My teacher is the kind of one that wants us to "broaden our vocabulary". I found that in her class if I take the time to use a lot of long or exotic words in my writing I can normally glean a good grade from her. I guess it does pay to use a thesaurus…
    My old English teacher hated the words "stuff" and "things" she refused to let us use them in our papers. I don't disagree with her, there a lot better and more specific words to use than those.
    Thanks for the post, Ms. Levine!

  3. THANK YOU so much for answering my question! I loved the book Animal Farm, and you're right- it definitely requires some backstory and experience to get the allegory! 😀
    Along the lines of that, Flowers for Algernon is another book that starts out very childish. (Sorry, I don't know how to describe it) But again, it doesn't take away from the quality of the book, it enhances it. It sounds like What Jamie Saw is similar. (I would recommend Flowers for Algernon at a mature 8th grade and up)
    Chicory- I know what you mean about dashes and fragments! I use dashes all the time, but hey- it's part of my writing style… 😀

  4. I really like this post (as usual)- I've been reading this blog for a while, but I'm just now commenting…:)
    @Grace- One of my teachers this year is completely anti-things/stuff. Even when we write dialogue, our characters aren't allowed to say "things/stuff." I pointed out that in Angie Sage's book, Magyk, one of the creatures was called the "Thing."-it just added to the eeriness. Needless to say, that didn't go over well…
    In my story, I write freely, but now in school, I stick to the teachers's rules.
    Again, I really like this post and the prompt 😀

  5. @Gail, a question for you.

    Where would be the best place to shop for your books online so that you get the largest cut? I know authors usually get paid more per book with the hardcovers than they do with the paperbacks, but does the store (and the price they sell the book at) matter? In other words, would buying a book via your (or the publisher's) Web site be better for you than if I bought it on Amazon?

  6. @Kitty-I am sad to say that I tend to be a smart Alec too. For example, once we were supposed to copy the sentences our teacher wrote and e-mail them. One of the sentences was 'I would pay $50 000 for the opportunity to go to summer school!' Hmmm…. I happened to "accidentally" replace that sentence with a note about not making your students lie. This teacher would have brought writing that sentence back to haunt me.
    I love words and double meanings and riddles, as well as short sentences. Maybe that's why I like poetry…. Anyways, I have a word fact; there are some people who chose to use the biggest words possible to confuse people around them.

  7. @ Kitty – It sounds like you have it figured out! There are different rules for different kinds of writing. 🙂

    But writing the way a teacher wants you to does have a purpose; it forces you to come up with different ways to say the same thing instead of the first way you think of.

    I worked for an editor once who had me write a section for a textbook two different ways. I showed her my first paragraph, and she had me rewrite it, explaining a concept from the entirely *opposite* direction. I didn't think it was possible, but it was. That really impressed on me that there is *always* a different way to say the same thing, and it might be better!

  8. April–What a lovely question! It's best for me if you buy through the website, and it doesn't matter which seller you pick. If my books eventually come out as e-books, there may be a difference, but we're not there yet. The same is probably true for most authors who have websites you can buy from.

  9. @Erin Edwards- That's a good point; that does make sense for the teachers to want you to be able to express something in a variety of ways. I'll keep that in mind 🙂

  10. @Erin Edwards- I agree that teachers have a reason to have us write it their way. The problem is when they seem to think that's the *only* way to write.

    This was a great post. It has good timing too considering that my grade has to write a book for a fourth grader and our teacher doesn't want us to use "said" at all in it. 🙂 I wanted to tell her about the said disappearing thing, but I decided she does have a reason.

  11. I'm definitely the kind of person who writes lots of repeating words. I love dashes and commas as well, and I tend to use a lot of question marks, the narrator asking herself a question, the character asking a question, the reader being asked a question. Well, maybe not quite that many questions. 🙂

    Now that I think about it, my vocabulary for my writing really isn't all that big, but it's all words that I encounter in YA fiction anyway, so I don't think it's all that bad. I've caught myself thinking about it since I've read your post, though. I was doing a writing exercise the other day and started crossing out the 'jail' words and putting harder words in. It's fun to stretch like that.

    BTW, I have a quick question . . . in one of my novels, my MC falls in love twice. The first person he falls in love with is someone he's not supposed to, and it doesn't work. It starts out that way. Throughout the book, he tries to keep away from the girl, and he ends up with another girl a lot, who he doesn't like well at first but over time he falls in love with her instead. Is this too complicated with readers emotions? The reason I'm asking is because a couple years ago I read a trilogy (Inkheart by Cornelia Funke) where the MC had the same boyfriend for most of the book but then decided she wanted a new one at the end. I felt the MC was a little unfair, and I found it to be a bit of an unsatisfying ending. What are your thoughts on this?
    (Sorry if I wasn't clear there.)

  12. Jenna Royal–It sounds okay to me from your description. I think there's an underlying question here that I want to think about, maybe having to do with pacing and feeling, so I'm adding it to my list.

  13. Okay, thank you. I don't want it to be too confusing for the emotions of someone reading it, if you know what I mean … Like they don't know which characters to cheer for and all that. But I think it should be good … I'm excited about it. 🙂

  14. @ Jenna Royal – I think that in the INKHEART series it's justified because Meggie herself has changed and matured a huge amount in the books. She isn't the same girl as she was when she first took up with Farid. I would have found it less understandable (to say the least!) if she'd not changed at all, and just dropped Farid because she didn't like him anymore, though.

    And is it just me, or are the second two books of that series (INKSPELL and INKDEATH) really that dark, depressing, boggy, and bleak? I found myself shocked at the extremely harsh world and the mean circumstances, and at times I would have to put the books down because of the lack of light and hope I felt. (And this is from someone who read THE HUNGER GAMES with vim and excitement that winter.)

  15. @Rose-I don't think the Inkheart trilogy gets depressing. I think that it just seems that way because it starts to deal with death, which most people find depressing. I know this will make me sound cruel, but death interests me. Not like it interests murderers, but I just think about it a lot. It's unknown, so people fear it, but that's what makes it so interesting. I don't think there will ever be a person on Earth who will not wonder what happens after you die.

    @ Jenna Royal-I think that your book will be AWESOME. It would be kind of boring if he ended up with the same person as in the beginning. And people can fall in love with people they originally hate. E.G. Derek and Chloe in the Darkest Powers Trilogy by Kelley Armstrong.

  16. @ Rose and Mysterygirl – Thank you, your advice was helpful. I think there will be reason enough for what happens, and because both characters are MCs, it should work. I'm looking forward to writing this. 🙂

    @ Rose – Yes, I would agree that it is justified. Meggie's grown and changed, but I was still disappointed. I liked Farid, and I didn't feel like … oh, what was his name? I forget it now … But the one Meggie fell in love with at the end … Anyway, I didn't feel like he was portrayed as well as Farid was. So I was a little disappointed though I understood why it happened.

    And about the darkness … I didn't mind it particularly, although I did find the last book, Inkdeath, was pretty dark. I liked Inkspell a lot though, although it did seem a bit dark, I suppose. I really enjoyed them. Actually, I rarely want to put down a book because I find it dark or depressing.I can only think of a couple exceptions – one of which was actually one of the Harry Potter books – I believe it was the fifth, the Order of the Phoenix. The one where they had the new headmistress with all the rules and regulations. I guess I didn't really want to put it down, because inwas so caught up in the series, but I did find it a bit depressing. The characters never could do anything positive, not to mention that I extremely disliked the headmistress.

  17. @ Kitty and Elizabeth – I hear your frustration with English teachers loud and clear. 🙂 English and literature were my *least* favorite subjects in school. Just know that you are developing a flexibility skill.

    @ Jenna Royal – while you're waiting for Ms. Levine's post on pacing, you might find it interesting to try to read Inkheart again and figure out *why* the romance change didn't work for you. What little insights could have made it easier for you to believe? Like did you need a little hint that she was starting to get dissatisfied before she dumped the first boyfriend and how many times does that need to be mentioned and how early?

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