Monday, May 6, 2013

Why use simple words? Because it's easier to control connotations.

On Friday I took one of those quizzes. You know, the ones that claim they're going to tell you something really deep about your writing, revealing the grand master of writing whose style yours resembles. I was excited. It looked easy. Out of these four words, which would you use to describe a particular condition or state of being? Choose, choose, choose, choose, and the result...

Ernest Hemingway?!!

Any of you who have actually read my work will know that Ernest Hemingway does not write like me. I do not write like him. At all. So what gives?

I chose simple words.

Now, here's where it gets interesting. I don't write simple prose, but I do love to use simple words. Why? Because for me, the social and cultural underpinnings of a word are hugely important. I can't use a word to describe Varin, or Garini, or Poik Paradise, if it sounds like it comes from the United States of America on Earth in 2013. By that I mean that pop references are out. So are specific cultural references.

The most effective way to strip out these unintended references is to use simple words.

A word that appears most often, in the most diverse contexts, is by its very nature the most generic. Psycholinguistically speaking, whenever we encounter a word, our brain activates all of the possible meanings of it that we have ever heard. Therefore, a word with only one particular meaning for one particular context is going to bring up that context for us. A word that has been heard hundreds or thousands of times will not bring up any one context very strongly, and that frees it up for use with new ones that won't allow for a strong contextual association.

By working with simple words, or generic words, I don't mean that your writing should be simple or generic. Your job is to teach the reader to associate this word with the features of your new context. I teach my reader that whenever I use the word Higher, it refers to people of a higher caste status in Varin (marked as having special meaning in this case through capitalization). I teach my reader that the word Cold (marked again) doesn't just mean of low temperature, but also means unkind to the point of mercilessness, and also means exalted in status.

When you pick words that do come with contextual associations, make sure they have the contextual associations you want. When I work with the nobility of Varin, I will often use words that are commonly associated with nobility in our world. That association works; that association is important.

Connotations have immense power. They can bring up entire scenarios, rafts of context. A single word can evoke ancient Egypt. Or a single word can imply an entire history of technology. Words are powerful tools, and must be chosen with care. Choosing a simple word allows you to blank the canvas so that you can paint what you want, even if you're not Ernest Hemingway.

It's something to think about.