I took one of those Buzz Feed quizzes — you know, the ones that ask a series of questions and then tell you what kind of flower you are, or what storybook character you most closely resemble. This one was a vocabulary test. I won’t tell you my score — it was creditable, but not 100%.
However, in most cases I didn’t really know the word. I could make an educated guess, but for some it was just plain luck when I got it right.
It’s the same thing when I read. If I don’t know a word — and I think I have a fairly extensive vocabulary — I try to guess the meaning through context. If that fails, I go to the dictionary. If I am really into the story, I might jot the word down to look up later on.
Either way, though, the unfamiliar word is like the author is throwing up a hand and shouting “Stop!” My concentration is broken and it takes a few minutes to pick up the thread again. I feel upset with myself for not knowing the word, and upset at the author for putting it there.
I have friends who insist that using words that aren’t common in everyday conversation are a gift to readers, introducing them to words they might not have met up with before. Maybe so. Like all writers, I love to learn new words.
But would I use them in a story I am writing? Am I adding clarity to the sentence, or showing off?
I think an author must tread carefully here. Use the word, yes, but be sure it is used so the reader can understand it within the context of the sentence. Give them a clue, for gosh sake, so they don’t have to scratch their heads and then try to find the dictionary they last used in English Lit twenty years ago.
Don’t assume your reader won’t know a word, either. Dumbing down your story doesn’t help anyone. Readers can sense when an author is being condescending. If the word fits, and no other word does the job as perfectly, use it. You aren’t writing a children’s book.
And there you have it: Something else to think about when searching for just the right word to convey your idea.