It has always been my belief and contention that writers have an obligation not only to entertain readers, but also to educate them. That premise is obvious in non-fiction, which by its very nature is based on facts, most of which are not known to the reading audience—else why bother to write the piece in the first place? But in fiction, entertaining the reader seems to have taken precedence over educating them, especially in this short-attention-span, digital age.
There are many ways to educate readers while still telling a fascinating and gripping story. One of the more overt is to make sure that your technical skills in the English language are, as the British would say, spot on. A so-so writer can tell a readable story even when unknowingly killing some of the basic rules of sentence structure and punctuation (though discerning readers might have some trouble getting all the way through the story). A good writer can do the same while adhering to all the rules, which makes it a better read. A great writer lifts the story to the next plateau by using some judicious and creative manipulation of the language; ie, still breaking a few rules, but at least knowing why they need to be broken. And inspired writers make their prose sing while still adhering to all the rules, actually using the rules to slingshot their work out into the stratosphere.
But one of my favorite ways to educate readers is to sprinkle a few “big words” into the body of my work, words that may not be familiar to most readers. I like to think I’m helping to stretch their vocabulary and add depth to their life experience. Maybe it’s my own little quirk—I am a self-professed word-monger with an extensive vocabulary of my own—but I love to come away from a wonderful story knowing I’ve gotten more than enjoyment from it, more even than a better understanding of people and life. I’ve learned a new word that someday I may be able to attach to an event or feeling in my own life. My experience of living has expanded. I feel broadened, more open. Heck, I feel smart! It’s absolutely exhilarating.
Often writers will be told not to use words readers don’t already know, but if a writer has a fairly comprehensive vocabulary why should he or she have to “dumb down” in order to write for the public? Huntington Beach, California, resident Elizabeth George, writes the very successful British Detective Inspector Thomas Lynley series. She has a vocabulary of awesome scope; I found thirteen words I didn’t know in Missing Joseph, that run the gamut from acclivity to tenebrous.
Part of the tingle I get when I read her well-crafted, expertly-written mystery novels comes from knowing I will need to have a dictionary at my side (and not an abridged one!). As I read I learn new ways of looking at people, places, things and events, because synonyms do not have identical meanings any more than all grapes taste the same. Each new synonym adds its own piquant nuance to the total essence of a description, a scene, a character’s outlook, the meaning of life itself. And Ms. George sprinkles these little iridescent nuggets into her narrative like priceless pearls, for the titillation and edification of the discerning reader. And, hopefully, to increase discernment in the average reader. To lift the reader a little higher.
Don’t ever be afraid to ask your reading audience to scale the mountain with you. Most of them will come along for the ride, as long as you tell a compelling, inspiring story that takes hold and won’t let go. And if they learn a few new words along the way, they’ll be all the better for it.No comments