Recently, I have read several blog posts that told me how I ought to write. I’m up for some constructive criticism. In fact I need constructive criticism, but these diktats seemed to be based on the assumption that our readers do not have two brain cells to rub together.
The advice given by some is that we should always use the simplest language when writing, regardless of the style, genre, intended readership group, or subject of the piece concerned. Comments like, “Why use a $10 word when a 10 cent word will do?” illustrate the thinking.
I will put my neck out and say I disagree. As a reader, writer, reviewer, crit-partner – whatever your role – shouldn’t we look at how well the language used works within the context of the piece, and not just seek to see how well it adheres to a set of predefined ‘rules’?
It doesn’t matter whether the ‘rules’ are our own, or some we have adopted from somewhere else.
One of the most commonly quoted advocates of simplicity in writing is, of course, George Orwell, who expressed his views in his well known:
“Five (sic) Rules for Effective Writing:
1. Never use a metaphor, simile, or other figure of speech which (sic) you are used to seeing in print.
2. Never use a long word where a short one will do.
3. If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out.
4. Never use the passive where you can use the active.
5. Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word, or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent.
6. Break any of these rules sooner than saying anything outright barbarous.”
So am I expressing an opinion that appears to be in opposition to one of the literary greats of our time? I don’t think so.
If we go deeper, we see that Orwell’s aim was to promote clarity of communication and not to denigrate the use of powerful and descriptive language. In his classic book “1984” one of the main themes explored is how it is possible to control the populace by outlawing the use of descriptive, evocative, and emotive terms used in everyday language thereby manipulating their thought processes and effectively brain-washing an entire nation.
In the book, eradicating the different, the creative, the spontaneous, the joyous, and the varied use of language left a society culturally impoverished, without an historical anchor, and vulnerable to manipulation. It seems obvious from the way Orwell deals with this topic in “1984” that he was against such dis-empowerment of language.
Another form of written expression, poetry, depends entirely on the freedom to choose words from the full lexicon available to the writer. George, to the best of my knowledge, never stated he was against poetry. It hardly seems likely that he would ever have advocated universally dumbing-down the use of language as some modern overzealous re-interpreters of his ‘rules’ advocate.
Still not convinced? Then why did Mr Orwell feel the need to add the sixth ‘rule’ to his famous five?
I will openly admit that I am often over-liberal in my use of flowery language. However, I do think that the current trend in writing towards simplicity sometimes takes things too far. All languages (a good example being English with its 250,000+ distinct words) are possessed of a richness, a depth, and a history with layers of meaning and subtlety building one upon the other, stretching back through the centuries. The writer who is willing to dig a little deeper and explore this rich trove has access to psychological, emotional, and cultural cues that can greatly expand their creative options as well as giving their readers a richer experience.
However, are our readers up to the task of following our so-called highbrow thoughts? Below I list some words that are of similar ‘difficulty’ to those marked for deletion by some when applying ‘rules’ such as Mr Orwell’s. Language of this level is apparently ‘too hard’ for the average young adult, or even adult reader to cope with…
I compiled two lists of words and phrases by skim-reading two published authors’ work. The ‘difficulty’ is not rated by syllable count, but apparently dictated by the existence of simpler, equivalent, ‘everyday’ words (you will almost certainly disagree with some choices, but it is the overall idea that I wish to convey):
Wreath (verb), scarce, ramshackle, flue, lurch, slump, hither and yon, dexterous and deft, excepting, lurks, dank, frisking, dander, woefully, heisted.
Haversack, vittles, tyrant, bough, inquisitive, unbounded (not to untie), bidding (not at auction), seeped, blustery, leeside, dormitory, scornfully, merriment, saturnine, grave-faced, babble, daunting, dirge, patter, saturated, animosity, unmelodious, galore, messmate, blathering, yonder, hostilities, escalate, wavered , dashing, mockingly, eerily, protruding, senselessness, rapped, bore , beaker, perfunctory, tasselled, titbit, garment, sundry, recited, hue, reverie, russet, renovating, indeterminate, bygone, niche, beckoning, curtly, insolent, blurted, sandalled, bewilderment, evident, reproving, cynical, subsided, meandering, plumage, onslaught, humid, interspersed, infernal, wreathed, recesses,vast.
Have you guessed who they are?
The first list comes from the books by Dr. Seuss, who wrote for children up to the age of eight. Dr Seuss’ writing contains lines like:
“He lurks in his Lerkim,
cold under the roof,
Where he makes his own clothes out of miff-muffered moof.”
Dr Seuss, “The Lorax”.
Seuss, like Lewis Carroll and other before him, understood that human beings have an inherent genetic ability to confer meaning on a word simply from the context surrounding it. However strange the concept may seem to the Rules Lawyers, it means the ability to understand language and acquire vocabulary is hard-wired into our readers…
The second list comes from the first twenty pages of Brian Jacques’ children’s novel “Doomwyte” (every book in his Redwall series is written in exactly the same style). Do children struggle with his use of language? It seems unlikely as the books from the series as a whole have sold over 20 million copies. So, before cutting words from your writing, especially due to age considerations, just bear in mind that it is not uncommon for twelve-year-olds to read, comprehend, and enjoy books like “Lord of the Rings”.
Maybe it is time for we writers to not dumbly obey the ‘rules’, but to move beyond them and actually start using our brain cells. Let’s start asking questions when we critique, read, or write:
Do the word choices add something to the piece of writing?
Are the word choices appropriate for the intended purpose, genre, style and setting of the book?
Are the word choices appropriate to the current point-of-view character (especially important in first person)?
Do the word choices negatively (I could have used detrimentally ) affect the pace of the writing, for example in an action scene?
Is the primary aim to evoke emotion, lend colour, or dramatise the piece in a particular way, or am I writing primarily for brevity and clarity, such as when writing a how-to guide or technical manual?
I’m sure there are many other pertinent questions you can think to ask. My last one is:
How many of you struggled to understand this post?
If you didn’t, then it is likely your readers won’t struggle to comprehend your writing either – even if they are children and teenagers, they still have more than two brain cells to rub together.
Writing by dumbly obeying ‘the rules’, may enable you to turn out a story. Will it be the most unique, inspired, creative work you can do? Will it resonate with your voice, and reflect what makes you unique as an individual and as a writer? Certain authors have a cult following for a reason… Let’s bear ‘the rules’ in mind and use them as guidelines, sure. However, in the end, we need to develop and use our own creative judgement if we want our writing to stand out. And our readers? I think they are probably intelligent enough to cope.
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