Vocabulary Choices

Today’s topic is a writer’s vocabulary. What principles should guide you when you’re choosing words for a writing project?

Here’s a principle many aspiring writers live by: “Never use an ordinary word when a more sophisticated word will do.” You can see where they’re coming from. Isn’t it common sense to make yourself sound smart?

No, it’s not. Professional writers want – more than anything else – to be read. Good writing attracts readers because it’s energetic and exhilarating. The ideas keep coming at you. I always think of sitting on a big, beautiful horse that knows where he’s going and won’t let anything stop him.

But what if you’re an expert who writes about serious subjects? Won’t your readers lose respect for you if you make everyday word choices?

Let’s see if that’s true. I’ve published three articles and two book reviews in the Journal of Bernard Shaw Studies – a scholarly publication from the Penn State Press. (I’m also a member of the editorial board.) Do I practice what I preach?

To find out, I copied the introductory paragraphs (304 words) from my most recent article, “Shaw’s Pygmalion: The Play’s the Thing,” and crunched some numbers. (Did you notice the title I chose? It’s all one-syllable words except for Pygmalion, the title of Shaw’s play.)

The first step was to calculate the reading level: 11th grade, according to a readability website – within the ballpark for a scholarly journal. Two of my sentences came in at seventh-grade level: 

Playwriting was not Shaw’s first career choice.

The passage of time has also deepened our understanding of the play.

Next I counted all the one-syllable words. There are 134 of them – more than a third of the total word count. (Examples include the, in, a, his, plays, still, more, than, has, place, great – nothing unusual.)

What about the longer words? Most of them aren’t difficult either: About, delighted, problems, issues, weren’t, directly, professional, effectively, creation, public, successful, popular, recent, interest, explains. Two words – theatrical and dramatist – might not appear in an ordinary conversation, but they’re not hard to understand.

Now for the hard words. In addition to Pygmalion (three times), and the names of two scholars (Hornby and Gainor), I counted ten words that only educated readers might know: Rapturous, refuted, pantheon, metadrama, inherent, transmitting, generate, persona, collaborative, and reproach. That’s 3% of the 304-word total – only 1 word out of every 33.

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When I tackle a scholarly project, my focus is finding something new and different to say. (In fact that’s how I tackle any writing project.) I’ve been working on a paper about Shaw’s play Village WooingThe early stages have been frustrating – every idea I came up with was something that my listeners might have heard before. Finally I was able to find something that (I hope!) will interest them. If not – the delete key will be there for me.

Once the ideas are in place, I concentrate on that riding-a-big-beautiful-horse feeling. Is my audience going to gallop along with me? If not – you guessed it! – it’s time for that delete key.

Bottom line: Good writing isn’t about your desire to impress. It’s about creating an experience for your readers – a lively and engaging one that they’ll enjoy and remember.


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