Monday, September 28, 2009

Eschew obfuscation: Why do so many writers try to sound so literary?

I received an anthology the other day in the mail. I ordered it online from a publisher where I wanted to submit a story. I wanted to get a feel for the type of writing the editors published. All of the stories in the anthology had been published on the publisher's website, but were also winners out of other stories. I opened the cover and began reading the first story. It was horrible!

I will compliment the author on her immense vocabulary, but did she really have to try to use all of her big words in that one story? Was she trying to impress someone? The use of so many uncommon words made the story artificial and labored. I suffered through the story, trying to quickly get to the next. When I finally reached the next story, it too, used flamboyant words throughout and I don't mean one or two scattered liberally here and there. I mean, every other word (well, not quite, but pretty damn close) was some obcsure word to lend the prose some kind of descriptive literary merit. It was horrible and painful to read!

Okay, you may be thinking that I'm being too critical here, but seriously, why must writers go out of their way to sound so literary? Having a large vocabulary is great, don't get me wrong, but do you have to bludgeon readers over the head with your fancy words? I had the problem myself, of trying to hard to sound literate with my earlier writing and occassionally it tries to creep back into my writing. Luckily, I have a constant reader that tells me when I'm trying too hard to sound literate. I was completely unaware that I was doing this until she pointed it out to me. I just knew that when I reread some of my work it was stilted and jagged on the ear, but I couldn't pinpoint what the problem was until it was brought it to my attention.

Now, when I finish writing something, I sit down with it and look for any places that rub me the wrong way. Usually, the places that tend to do this are where I've tried too hard to sound like I'm trying to impress my readers with my words. Falling into this trap is bullshit, and doing so will show in your writing, sticking out like a turd among the flowers. It is my opinion, however, that some authors can actually pull off this feat. If you pick up a book by one of these successful authors and read it, pay close attention to the flow of the narrative. I bet you any amount of money that the author will write as casually as they converse even if they have an extensive vocabulary.

I'm not saying to disregard all of your eloquent words. I'm just reiterating something King said in his book, On Writing, use the first word that comes to your mind. If you do this then you will more than likely write prose that flows unencumbered and doesn't jag on the ear. If you haven't read his book about the craft, I encourage you to do so. It's very informative. In it, he says that language doesn't always need to wear a tie and lace-up shoes. I agree. As you're writing, if you stop to think of a more impressive word to use in place of your small words, you'll come up with one. But, really, do you want to use a word that's only cousin to the word that first came to your mind? It's powerful stuff, that bit of advice. The only writer that really blew me away with the use of his extensive vocabulary without ruining the story I read was T. C. Boyle. He is one of the exceptions to the rule, however. He still manages to deliver beautiful prose wrapped inside those large words, but that is because he knows what he's doing. He's been doing it for decades. If you doubt it, then by all means, continue to write obfuscated prose and feel literate. As for me? I'll read something much less like a college dissertation, thank you.

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