L is for Language

letter lEver opened a book and been convinced it was written in another language? Let’s not do that.

Chances are good you wrote your book in your native or second tongue. Either way, you did not choose a language which your proficiency was lacking. No, we are not talking about the Grammar Nazi… yet. We are talking about the words you choose to convey your plot and information to your reader.


There I was looking across the table at this amazing woman, and she was talking to me. When her lips parted, I was certain she would coo so softly my heart would melt.

“It really is easy. Once you have the wheels, differential cover and drums off, just disengage the retaining flange. After you slide the axle out of the tube, all you have to do is remove and inspect the shims sets and bearing assemblies. If those are clear, check the ring and pinion for wear or scoring or chipped teeth. After that, just adjust the bearing cap bolts to the 63 foot-pounds of torque, clean it all up, put it back together, refill with gear oil, drop it and next time, do not try to tow anything more than eight tons.”

She smiled. I smiled. I wonder if she knows I have no idea what she just said.

Is your reader staring into your beautiful book and has no idea what you just said? Whose characters are these anyway?

Letting your characters ramble on about something which in no material way impacts your story line and contains specialized language ill-suited for your book is a way to encourage skimming of your book. When a character has created a knowledge void for readers, they are likely to skip what the character has to say later in the book. Can you afford to have the character cut?

In the example above, she simply could have said she broke a nail working on her friend’s truck, and he still would have thought the same thing.

Researchers (Should Be) Anonymous

WikiCommons Coal CarIn the middle of your western, a four-page foray into the mechanical history of the coal mine track system is a four-page break from your story line. During the intermission, your reader may well become interested in another book which has some plot.

Taking a time out to explain something in all its intimate details breaks the pace of your story. You could construct a cave-in scene where one character explains it to someone plotting how to slit his own throat without being noticed, but you would likely need to change genres.

While the knowledge could be important to setting a realistic stage for a rail crash which leads to a collapse, your reader is more interested in the crash than the forensics which prove it is realistic.


One of the largest market limiters is using language which readers will need specialized training to understand. Some rules of thumb:

  • If you had to look up one of the words,
  • If you have betas tell you they skipped/skimmed parts,
  • If a reader tells you, “I am _______-challenged,”
  • If you learned this during the course of career training,
  • If the information and related education are removed by more than 100 years,

the language is too technical. Even when writing about the past, be careful you are not shining your fascination in your book, unless the book is about your fascination.

Is this your audience?

Is this your audience?

Scientific, legal and mathematical terms, alongside computer jargon, are the most common offenders. If you want your book to appeal to a mainstream market (with an average of 14 years education), forgo terms which need more than a paragraph deviation from your story line or ones which cannot be explained through dialogue.

If you really just want to cater to the post-doctoral market, be sure you spell them properly.

Churrigueresque Glossography

Right? Fancy words are likely going to turn off your readers for one of two very different reasons:

1. They do not know what it means.

While more than a few authors admit they put in one to four advanced vocabulary words per book, they put them where they can be defined through context. You really do not want to be kenspeckle for using too many words no one has ever heard before your book. A good rule of thumb is to give your readers at least 100 pages before they need to get a dictionary or flip to your glossary.

Why do they hate dollar words where dime ones suffice? Although you may command a large portion of the language with ease, you are in the minority. Wielding polysyllabic, multi-rooted words when your point could have been made with easier language tells your readers you know you are smarter than they are.

Who really wants to read an author who is a pompous boor? Better still, do you want to be considered a pompous boor?

2. They know what it means. You do not.

Nothing smacks of being a charlatan more than using a word incorrectly. Some of the over-abused examples of words used completely wrong are nauseous, utilized, ethics, decimate, collegiate, probable, denounce, ultimate, literally, less, enormity, forgo and refute.

When you were in school, one of the required books in every language classroom was a dictionary. Given the power of the Google dictionary, take one minute per day to type into a search box “definition” and one word you use commonly to check to be sure your readers are not snorting at the irony of what you had no idea you wrote.


Many other examples of language which stop readers from finishing books are inappropriate or persistent use of literary devices which do not service the story line; superfluity and redundancy; repetition of events or descriptions; and general abuse of sentence structure. These examples fall under style, mechanics and grammar.

Can you think of an author or book you stopped reading because the language was incomprehensible? What is the difference between easy language and dumbing down?

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  1. I actually like all the technical details! At least when they’re correct. It always bugs me when an author makes up some pseudo-technical mumbo jumbo and thinks he’s fooling us.
    Binky recently posted..Attack of the VegetablesMy Profile

  2. If I don’t use the language in conversation, I feel I am being spoken down to. That’s just a basic rule of thumb I use, as I am not an academic though I did go to college. I use the same rule of thumb when I am writing. I would not want to include a glossary because it interrupts the flow of reading. I may use a word like “cathartic” in my writing. It’s a borderline word. I would rely on my beta readers to point out any words that need to be more familiar to a larger audience. I consider that kind of change making the language easier, rather than dumbing down, which would be to simplify everything to a sixth grade level.
    Gail Thornton recently posted..The Regret of a Flower Giveaway by Gail ThorntonMy Profile

    • I am 100% against dumbing down. I am also 100% against speaking down. I use a horrific number of words no one has heard before they encounter me. I make a point to explain them contextually, definitively or with a link. 😉 Never been a glossary fan, except in multilingual books.

  3. I would say the one time this does not apply is in Sci-Fi and then only if the author has done a fabulous job of world and language building. I have a couple of authors I read now or have read in the past who include glossary’s in their books.

    One of the other things, which you didn’t cover here but I would include is the use of dialect! Drives me up walls and around the bend. If an author is not native to a culture or region, please please please avoid the use of dialect! But if you must use it for the sake of a character, don’t spell it phonetically.

    I wish everyone with a desire to write would read this one Red. By the way I hate the word Utilize.
    Valentine Logar recently posted..One of those DaysMy Profile

    • I was merely at the upper limit of the post. I will cover dialect in the book. I think everyone who knows what it means hates the word utilize.

  4. I get stuck when people use words I do not understand and end up rereading the paragraph two or three times to make sense of it which ruins the flow of the story.

    It doesn’t help when words are incorrectly applied, or when they use terms like ‘a elephant’ instead of ‘an elephant’.

    You’d at least expect them to speak English…

    God Bless!

    Prenin recently posted..Saturday – Tony runs out of electricity credit.My Profile

  5. I have, on occasion, read with a dictionary at my side and frankly, this was a frustrating experience. At the moment, I cannot recall who I was reading, but I probably didn’t finish the book. I especially had trouble reading David Foster Wallace as he goes off on such long tangents, I forgot what the heck was going on.

    Frankly, I don’t know any BIG words and still stumble over short ones.
    Tess Kann recently posted..A woman of inspiration. A read of struggled beauty.My Profile

    • I have more annoyance with tangents than I do words I do not recognize. The long tangents signal a messed up time line or a concept which should have been supported differently. xxx

  6. I do indeed love this post… as for me – I seldom use the word utilize and there’s almost always some kind of shiver in my back when I hear it used.
    This is informative for me, in that, I may feel unqualified to write about certain subjects, for inadequate knowledge of subject. But the realization I now get is that, probably I may be speaking to many others who also are not educated in the subject, so the language used should be comfortable for the majority, with a teaser word possibly stuck in for the educated (used correctly, and in contest, of course)!
    Lovely “L”, Red…
    Off to read “M” now…

    BuddhaKat recently posted..M is for… MozambiqueMy Profile

    • Sometimes the exploration of a topic is good for the writer and the audience because they are on equal ground in the beginning. Learning is a great thing to share. xxx

  7. I couldn’t finish Anna Godbersen’s Bright Young Things because the language was just too Dickensian. At first I was thrilled to see current historical YA and something that was actually in third-person past tense for a change, but then the overly flowery language just got to me. I’ve heard that complaint from other readers too, that her books have too much bloviating and unnecessary descriptions of pastries, stairwells, and dresses in the middle of what had been good scenes.
    Carrie-Anne recently posted..Meet Ammiel and Micah (MS Sans Serif)My Profile

    • Welcome, Carrie-Anne. I am with you on the tangential screeches to a halt. I have put down a number of books for that exact reason. Stop by and leave a link to your blog in the Green Room when you have a chance.

  8. I could easily eat a dictionary for breakfast then spew out a load of words in my book, with the deluded idea that it would make me seem more intelligent.
    However, I believe in effective communication and in doing so I feel compelled to use less complicated words in an effective way, in order to get my point across to the reader.

    There are some who like to feel they are more intellectually superior than others and prefer the use of long words, which others may not even be able to pronounce let alone understand.
    I find that pretentious and I don’t have any time for it.
    I do think all authors have a responsibility to get the help they need to authenticate their subject matter.
    This will show that they know what they are talking about and will be readily accepted if they use a language which will not turn the reader off.
    Phil recently posted..Matrimonial TestimonialsMy Profile

    • It all comes down to delivering the product on the consumer’s level. If the language does not edify and elevate the reader, it is pretentious.


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