Monday, September 24, 2007

Keep it simple, stupid.


Today I find the word 'chthonic' in the middle of a book review that I'm reading. Chthonic? Am I really supposed to know what that means? I'm wary of even trying to pronounce it, having only just eaten. So I must either look it up or make a guess. I look it up. It means 'of the underworld'. Oh.

We expand our vocabulary in order to find better ways of expressing ourselves, and it's no great hardship to have to reach for the dictionary once in a while. This is how we learn. But for a writer to use a word in the certain knowledge that the majority of readers won't know its meaning is surely to use the wrong word. Cleverness over clarity.

Judging the vocabulary of your target age group is one of the great disciplines of writing children's books. The most complex of subjects and emotions and ideas can be tackled, but you really can't expect kids to be thumbing through Webster's at every other sentence. So what do you do - dumb it all down and try to keep your prose to words of one syllable? (Which I almost managed to do there.) No. You reign in the adult writers' tendency to show everyone what a smartarse you are, and go for clarity. And yes, this is a discipline, but by no means a limitation. Simple can still be elegant, poetic even.

'Explain it to me in layman's terms' is what we say to our doctor/accountant/lawyer/garage mechanic, when they start to go over our heads.
'Alright then,' they reply, 'You've got malaria/you owe the taxman/you're going down/your car's knackered.'
'Oh. Then why didn't you say so, instead of giving me all that technical guff? You had me worried there for a moment - just look what you've done to my pulse rate. I've come over all tachycardic...'

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