Beware of Overwriting in Your Fiction
In school you studied complex vocabulary on a regular basis. You entered every spelling bee. You took latin to prep for the SATs and now you have a dictionary app on your phone that gives you a new word to learn every single day. Now, with all of that learning and the masterful vocabulary that you have built, you need to show it off, right?
Think of those $5 words as seasoning in the stew that is your story. The shorter everyday words are the meat and potatoes. Stew without seasoning is bland, but over-seasoned stew can become inedible. Overuse of complex words is just like dumping a pound of salt into the pot.
Great writing comes from the author’s ability to engage his audience. Great authors know that to do this the reader must first be able to comprehend what is being read. So, how do you keep your fiction accessible? What level can your readers comprehend?
Here are a two facts that may be helpful.
• The average American reads at between the 7th and 8th grade level.
• Tom Clancy, John Grisham and Steven King write mostly at a 7th grade level.
Are these two facts a coincidence? We think not.
You may be thinking, “That’s all fine for people writing commercial fiction, but I’m trying to write a truly classic novel. For that lofty goal I will definitely need every word-arrow in my vocab quiver!”
Again, not necessarily.
James Joyce’s Ulysses, which has often been called the most important contribution to fictional literature in the twentieth century, comes in at right around a 6th grade reading level, based on vocabulary and sentence structure.
In reality, the best stew is made when the “correct” ingredients are used. Translating the analogy into writing, using the most beautiful word or the most impressive word does not always create the best story. What you really need to find, in every sentence, is the word whose definition best fits what is being described.
Find the “correct” word for what you’d like the reader to see in their mind and you’ll find the story-to-reader connection that can turn your work into one that gets remembered.
If you’d like to check what you’ve written to see its reading level, try www.readabilityformulas.com.
Or use the “Readability Level” feature in MS Word. Here is a link to the instructions from Microsoft.