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“In good writing, words become one with things.” ― Ralph Waldo Emerson

One question I get a lot from aspiring writers is whether or not I limit the vocabulary I use in my books, especially when I am writing for younger readers. My answer is always a definitive, no. I never write down to my audience. I do, however, provide contextual clues to the meanings of words in the narrative when those words may not be readily recognizable to my readers.

By the same token, I also don’t go out of the way to use a plethora of multisyllabic words my target readers are not likely to be familiar with. When writing is not to show people how smart I am, it’s to tell a story in a way that is so engaging the reader forgets they’re reading a book and falls completely into the world in the story.

I also think that it’s the wrong question to ask, because the words we choose to use, especially in fiction and memoir, should ultimately serve the story. To be honest, I work very hard on writing prose that is smooth and flows easily so that it can practically disappear from the page. I am constantly seeking to decrease the narrative distance between the reader and the story and especially access to the characters. I want my readers to experience the story as deeply and meaningfully as possible.

The question is, how do we do that? How do we make the writing accessible and engaging for the target reader?

If you are writing picture books for a young audience, you do need to be concerned about the language you use. But, again, you’re not writing down to your audience, you are telling the story in a way that is most accessible to them. You are writing with your target reader in mind. I don’t write about topics of interest to older adults when writing middle-grade fiction. I focus on the issues a middle-grader is most interested in. And I use a middle-grade viewpoint/voice, which then drives the language and word choices. In other words, I am channeling my middle-grade character.

Consider the fact that when writing fantasy, often one must provide contextual clues for the words that we make up for various aspects of the world where our story takes place. Typically, this means a world alien to our real-life world. Speculative fiction often explores different cultures, technology, and social structures, etc.

We make these worlds understandable and accessible by showing them through our characters, by showing how they experience the world/environment around them. We choose language to help the reader experience the world along with the characters, dropping contextual hints within the description, yes, but even more so through the character’s thoughts, actions, and dialogue.

Words and language matter. They are the building materials we use to tell our stories. By focusing on telling the story through character, we are better able to choose and use the words and language most appropriate to our target audience.

“A good story is a dream shared by the author and the reader. Anything that wakes the reader from the dream is a mortal sin.” ― Victor J. Banis


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Published inBook CoachingWriting