Vocabulary is at the heart of language, and therefore, of writing. An author cannot use words he does not know. Consequently, it seems prudent for any serious writer to do whatever he can to improve his vocabulary.
The easiest method, perhaps, is to read widely. However, some writers take such pleasure in words, they regularly study them. Christian suspense author Brandilyn Collins is just such a writer. As a blogger at Forensics and Faith, she shared weekly a new set of words (see for example this vocabulary post), and frequently tweets a new word.
In The Skin Map, I encountered a steady offering of new words—conurbation, telluric, feculent, aubergine, imprimatur. Often the meaning of these words was clear in context. On occasion, I paused in my reading to look up a new offering.
And there is the question—should an author include words that might not be widely understood, chancing that a break in comprehension will damage the “fictive dream” to the extent that the reader won’t want to continue, or will, at least, pause before again buying a book by that author?
The answer to this question actually brings the discussion to word choice. Presumably an author such as Mr. Lawhead who would use a word like feculent could just as easily have chosen to write foul, filthy, or polluted instead. He did not, meaning that he chose a more precise, though less used, word for a reason.
What should an author consider when making such word choices? I don’t think “most common” should be the hard and fast rule, or books will all descend to the level of fifth grade readers, much as TV writing has. At the same time, peppering a story with “fifty dollar” words for the sake of sounding erudite is foolish.
Writing is first and foremost communication. Words that obscure meaning must go. Words that may be difficult can stay as long as the author has a reason for them and creates a context that makes their meaning accessible. Look, for example, at Mr. Lawhead’s use of telluric.
Into the invisible square the old man drew a straight diagonal line. “A ley line,” he said, speaking slowly—as one might to a dog, or dull-wited child, “is what might be called a field of force, a trail of telluric energy. There are hundreds of them, perhaps thousands, all over Britain, and they have been around since the Stone Age.” (from The Skin Map, p. 18)
Notice that the word I’ve labeled “difficult” is describing a type of energy and is renaming “a field of force.” Though this passage may not give a reader enough to come up with a synonym for “telluric,” it nevertheless gives enough for someone unfamiliar with the word to keep reading without having missed anything central to the scene.
In addition, the word appears in dialogue. Much of word choice in fiction must be made in relation to the characters. Is a word too sophisticated for a street urchin? To common for an aristocrat? Too antiquated for a twenty-first century teen?
Choosing words with characters in mind is especially important when writing in a close third person narrative. An author has more latitude when writing, as Mr. Lawhead was in The Skin Map, in an omniscient point of view with an unseen narrator. Beyond dialogue, he could choose words that fit with the narrator persona or with the main character of each particular scene.
In summary, an author should make it his goal to expand his vocabulary. Then, when making word choices from the wealth of his vocabulary, he must consider how clearly his words communicate as well as how consistently they represent his characters.
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This article is a reprint, with some minor editorial changes, of “Vocabulary and Word Choice” which first appeared here at Rewrite, Reword, Rework in November 2010.