Sure sign of an amateur writer: thinking that good writing requires lots of big words.
Exhibit A: When I was in college, the local newspaper retained a friend of mine to review concerts. He was chasing a masters in music, so that much made sense. But he wasn’t a writer, as evidenced by his remark to me: “I need a thesaurus so I can load my review with lots of impressive words.”
Exhibit B: Years later, as I set out to write an account of an acquaintance’s encounter, the acquaintance said, “Be sure to put in all those big, fancy words you know.”
Both times, I shared a gem of advice from Harry Walker, my 10th grade Honors English teacher at Reno [Nevada] High School. For weeks, Walker had been passing out vocabulary words for us to learn. But upon giving us our first writing assignment, he said, “If any of you use so much as one vocabulary word, you will receive an automatic F.” Write to communicate, he said, not to impress. The first three rules of my pretentiously titled Cuno’s Tips for Stronger Writing come directly from Walker’s advice:
I can see why people would think they need big words and lots of them. Just look at the classics. Dickens, Conrad, Melville, Hawthorne and the lot were not known for getting promptly to the point. But it was not good writing that required them to drone on; it was economics. Authors of their day were paid by the word. That alone provided plenty of motivation for, say, Victor Hugo to burn up some 3,000 words introducing a priest whose sole act was to give away candlesticks. Hugo burned up thousands more introducing other characters who, after committing a single, brief act, disappeared for good. As a result, you know more about every minor character than you need to know, and you won’t miss a thing if you read the abridged version.
Another motivator for droning on is that literary works were often serialized before appearing in book form. The more words, the more chapters; the more chapters, the more issues over which periodical publishers could spread them; and, the more issues, the more readers periodicals could attract and hold. Publications could get away with that sort of thing when they didn’t have to compete with radio, TV, film, and Netflix.
It’s shame, for it has made plowing through great literature as much a chore as a discovery. I don’t blame anyone who gives up on, skims through parts of, or turns to an abridged version of the classics.
Nowadays, magazines pay for articles with a lump sum, and book publishers pay a lump-sum advance plus royalties. It’s a better system. It frees authors to hook you within a few pages. And competition for readers all but demands they do.
Welcome to Cunoblog
... where I share thoughts about writing. I don’t consider myself a writing authority, but that doesn’t keep me from presuming to blog like one. Oh, and I reserve the right to digress when I feel like it.