Monday, March 30, 2015

Instead of Minutiae by Linda S. Glaz

You don’t want to nickel and dime your readers to death, so you opt for the twenty-five cent word. Throughout your manuscript you are giving the reader a lesson in vocabulary. In fact, they might have to use a dictionary ten or eleven times just to finish page one. Wow! They will be so impressed.
I’ll never forget the first time that I heard the word minutiae. I have always prided myself on a strong vocabulary, but I sat and stared at the movie screen. Minutiae? What the heck is minutiae? I wasn’t even able to tell by context. Once at home, I researched it and voila! Minutiae. Was I any more impressed than I would been by simple saying the small details? And I’ve actually caught myself wanting to slip minutiae into conversation from time to time because it really does fit better than very precise, small details in certain circumstances, but I don’t. And why is that? Because it could easily be a conversation stopper.
My maternal grandfather, each evening when the girls were all gathered around, would take out the dictionary and word by word, start to finish, work his way through. The girls had to spell each word and know the meaning. He was college-educated, but more often than not, quite self-taught. His English was atrocious, but he worked at it each day. This was by far one of the best parts of Mom’s early education. But did my mom elucidate the specifics of those assemblies to me in that milieu? HUH?
Did Mom tell me about it in that manner? No, she just said it like it was; he believed very strongly in words. And in our stories, as authors, we often have to just tell it like it is as well. Do we want our reader grabbing a dictionary in order to wade through the work? Line by line?
Depending on which stats you draw on, the average American reads between a 7h and 9th grade level. So most novels are written at the 7th grade level to accommodate. Grant you most avid readers go beyond that level, but you see the dilemma here, you don’t want to write above your reader by too much or he’s lost.
“But I can give them a great education!” You can and you will by writing it in your own words, not Noah Webster’s. You do it subtly when you have written the word look too often and switch it up with glance, glimpse, gaze, look, observe, watch, behold, regard, examine, or many others. But to completely give over your writing to the thesaurus means that you often use words which don’t really fit with that exact meaning anyway. And risk coming off sounding a tad pompous or silly.
There’s nothing wrong with well-placed words in your writing, but remember the expression KISS, keep it simple stupid! You will naturally slide in words that this person or that might not know, but don’t set out on a mission to re-educate the public. Let your story do that with details—minutiae that define your genre, not your intellectual prowess. Your job is to tell the story the best way you know how. Bits and pieces will be given to your reader which over time and hundreds of books, will have increased her vocabulary naturally.
Readers will always find a word here and there that will increase their knowledge, but if you determine ahead of time that it’s your mission, you will lose a lot of folks who simply wanted to sit down and have a good read.
I’m not suggesting for one second to dumb down your book, I’m just saying to let your writing unfold naturally. Don’t write to impress, just write your story. And don’t rely on a thesaurus to beef it up!
However, if cultivating the scholarly aptitude of your bibliophile is your aspiration, then go for it, just include a lexicon in the back of the tome!


Terri Tiffany said...

LOL Loved that last line! I really don't care for writing that I can't understand or that stops me in my tracks.I'm college educated but prefer that my books flow easily. Maybe it is not impressive but they are readable and that's the whole point, isn't it?

Linda Glaz said...

I agree. If I'm reading a reference book or the like, I don't mind the intellectual approach, but when I'm being entertained, I don't want to have to do it with a dictionary in hand.

Diana Flegal said...

I agree!

David Smith said...

An old Reader's Digest anecdote has a student gushing to her college professor: "Your vocabulary is so HUGE! I can't believe it!" The man self-deprecatingly responds: "Thanks, but I've always considered it to be rather meager." And the kid moans: "There you go again!" A good post, Linda. I enjoy learning a few new words in my leisure reading (and thank God for Kindle's built-in dictionary) but it can be fatiguing and, eventually, off-putting. Thanks for such a good post.

Linda Glaz said...

Thank you, David. I know what you mean. If I walk away from finishing a novel, and I've picked up a couple new words, it's enough for me. Unless, of course, it lends itself to some topic that most folks wouldn't know. For example, Randy Ingermanson's novel that has quantum physics as part of the story. That one I learned quite a few new words and topics.

Jim Hart said...

The first time I read Frank Herbert's DUNE I almost gave up in the first several chapters. It was a bit tedious learning a new vocabulary word every-other sentence! It's tough when you have a short attention span.

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