The Invasion of the Polysyllabic Sesquipedalians

Ah, the love of big words.

The ten-dollar ones you throw out at parties while you smirk with arrogant contempt for those whose Funk & Wagnall’s have long been gathering dust.

The fellow with the thirty-inch biceps and map of scars across his face bows his head in shame and takes his leave, knowing he stands no chance as long as you’re around. And the pretty lady, the one with rosy cheeks that just got rosier, is batting her eyelashes at you and gesturing toward the door. She wants to leave and means for you to go with her so she may partake of your colossal vocabulary.

This is pure fantasy. It doesn’t happen, no matter how much we budding writers want it to. What does happen is this.

The Effect of $10 Words

You’re writing or speaking on your favorite topic, still smirking with haughty contempt, but this time because you’re being transparent and understandable. Your audience is shaking its head in wonder about the quality of the tales you tell. Everyone is engaged, and all eyes are on you. Your story is coming to a close. The hero is just about to

And then it comes out.

The big word. The one with five or six syllables and a hyphen.

The beautiful tapestry you were weaving is not only now unraveling, but it’s also on fire and taking your audience with it. All that imagery and mental pictures you gave your audience with your well-turned sentences are gone. People are now glancing at their watches. The lady with the rosy cheeks is glancing towards the door again, but this time out of boredom. The big dude with the biceps is chewing on his fork and balling his hands into fists.

Please don’t take any of this; we should all stay away from significant words. That’s not the point, for if we all wrote for the lowest common denominator of understanding, every book would read like Dick & Jane. That’s a crime in the other direction, an insult to those in your audience who understand.

But pick and choose your big words. Understand that a big buzz in the wrong place could kill the pace of your story and completely nullify your reader’s understanding. If your reader has to crack open a dictionary right when the hero’s about to save the day, you could lose him forever. And if you don’t lose him, at the very least, you’ve slowed down the pace of your story and made it more difficult to read.

That’s one of the things that makes good writing good writing – ease. There’s plenty to be said for ornate language and rhythmic devices, but if something is difficult to read, no trick in the world will save it.