Ever 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
In 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.
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.
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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