Tell me truly, how often, when you’re reading for pleasure do you reach for the dictionary?
Okay, so there are some writers who delight in stretching us, and in the past, fiction often seems to have been intended to ‘improve’ us. I am, of course, talking about the long-distant past here, when a lot of literature was intended to be read aloud to a mixed audience who may or may not have had the chance to go to school. Fiction then was all too often not just about fun. I’ve ploughed through plenty of heavy old books and stories whose primary function seemed to have been to act as a vehicle for carrying heavy moral messages, and improve my mind and my manners.
Which isn’t to say that all old books are wordy. I could send you back through the centuries of prose to some lovely lucid writings.
From the beginnings of literature, many of the best writers have studied their predecessors and thought and written about the art and craft of writing. They learned not just about how stories could be structured, but how the content worked, or didn’t work.
That’s a bit of a side-track though, because we all know that fashion changes our vocabulary. So in most older stories we will find ourselves reaching for the dictionary where contemporary readers wouldn’t have. If I have to reach for the dictionary regularly on a contemporary read, I soon lose the feel of the story. I can’t get fully involved in a story if I’m constantly confused by what’s being said.
For me, the cleverest writers are not the ones who like to demonstrate the range of their vocabulary. Clear language, artfully employed, that’s my measure of good writing. George Orwell summed it up quite neatly. He said, ‘Good prose is like a window pane.’ By which I take it to mean, that we should never let our words get in the way of our story.
So here’s a piece of advice to anyone who might be struggling with feelings of lexical inadequacy, while you’re worrying about all the words you don’t know, you’re not writing. Use the ones you do know, as precisely, as adventurously, as engagingly as you can, and you can’t go far wrong.
Besides, so long as we continue to read carefully, we will keep discovering not so much new words, as new ways to use our old words. The beauty of being a reading writer, is that it’s an endless voyage of discovery. There’s always a new book waiting to be opened, and we’re always waiting for it, so don’t hold back, get started writing…now.