What I’m about to tell you is Top Secret.
So Top Secret, in fact, that I might forever be banished from the elite guild of editors, publishers and other gatekeepers of the book-making world just for telling you. But it is a matter of such vital importance that I feel it’s worth the risk.
Are you ready?
Okay. Here it is.
No one cares how smart you are.
Writers – did you read that? No one cares how smart you are.
Do you know what your readers care about? They care about how smart you make THEM feel. Yeah, them. Not you. Crazy, huh?
So here’s the gig. And I’ve already facebooked, tweeted and screamed it from the bloody mountains, but I need to say it all again here, in long form.
If you must use large, obscure, rare, overly technical or jargony words – make sure that you use them in a context that allows the average to slightly above average reader (in your genre/target audience) to understand them without having to go ask The Google or, god forbid, open a dictionary.
I consider myself to be a slightly above average reader. I make it through 40-60 books a year, not counting the manuscripts that cross my desk (nor the kids books I read with my girls). I read across multiple genres avoiding only Westerns and traditional Romance. I read technical, scientific, complex nonfiction as well as light fluffy chick lit, paranormal, urban fantasy, epic fantasy, hard sci-fi, metric tons of YA in all sub genres, suspense, thrillers, horror, basically if it has words and comes printed on pages… I’ll read it. I’m a word slut. I own that.
I also own five dictionaries and have a phone and laptop with access to The Google, and I’m not afraid to use them.
But… and here’s the tricky part, I hate feeling stupid.
Because I have a degree and a half, because I read all the freaking time, because I’m a word slut who owns and has read dictionaries cover to cover, I really, really, really hate it when an author makes me look up a word that I feel like I should know, or at least be able to understand from the context.
But what I hate even worse than that is when I put the book down (not something you ever want to invite your reader to do), go to a dictionary or computer, look up the word in question, and discover that the author/writer is using the word incorrectly.
Now, when I’m being paid to edit a book that does this, I muffle my screams and jot a note in the margin that says something like, “Had to look this one up.” (When it’s a difficult word, but at least used correctly) or “Interesting word choice, I think you might have meant x, y, or z?” (When it’s a difficult word AND used poorly) or, if it’s a chronic problem a simple “Wrong word” later shortened further to “WW” begins to creep in.
When I’m reading the book for pleasure, or review purposes, and find myself spending more time with my dictionary than with the story I have a tendency to hurl the book across the room while screaming, “What the fuck you pompous fucking fucktard” at the top of my lungs, often waking my young children and sleeping husband who then have to spend the rest of the night plying me with drinks and soothing my fractured nerves. These books rarely get good reviews and I rarely purchase further books from that author.
It’s not that I’m against learning new vocabulary, quite the contrary, I LOVE a good new word, what I hate is being made to feel stupid over and over again. And what I hate worse than that is discovering that the pompous jerk making me feel like an idiot doesn’t understand the words any better than I do.
Now here’s the double top secret portion of the post – the reason agents, editors and publishers don’t want you to know this is that it gives them easy, instant grounds to reject your manuscript and move on to the next one in their overflowing stacks. Writers who need to feel smarter than their readers are writers who aren’t ready for prime time.
The first client I encountered this problem with was really great about it. It was the first time I had to swallow my intellectual pride and admit that I was not as smart as he was. It was the first time I had to write in the margins “I had to look this word up.”
My hands shook as I did it. There was a small tear forming in the corner of my eye. I second guessed myself from that moment (in chapter 2, I believe) all the way until the very last page of the book. I had to write the note several times. My dictionary still has creases from my read of that manuscript.
I sent him my critique with all my marginalia and my letter explaining how I work, and highlighting the larger issues that I saw. I also mentioned that I had had to look up several words and that he would find them marked in the margins. (He had at least used them correctly throughout.)
His response was that ALL of his beta readers had mentioned difficulty with his language, but no one had ever pointed out any specific words, so he never knew what to change. He was relieved to have finally found someone who would tell him straight up which words were causing reader offense.
I admitted to him that if I hadn’t been being paid, I never would have told him either. Why? Because no one wants to admit that they are dumber than you. No one wants to feel stupid. And certainly, no one wants to appear stupid.
I was being paid to help this writer become an author. He had entrusted his manuscript to me, and I take that trust and responsibility very seriously. I believe that I am being paid to be honest, to be helpful, to tell writers things that their friends, beta readers, and critique groups won’t.
I am being paid to admit that despite all my wordliness, I am dumber than you, and I had to look up these words. BUT I am also being paid to show you how to use those words effectively so that the next reader WON’T have to look them up, scratch their head, feel stupid, or hurl your book across the room screaming profanities.
As a courtesy to me, and ALL your future readers, if someone is ever kind enough, brave enough, or paid well enough to do this favor for you, take heed. Make changes. Reward your readers with the warm fuzzy feeling of intelligence instead of the cold infuriating burn of idiocy. They’ll reward you back, by recommending your book to friends, and by buying the next one you deliver. And you just may be able to teach them something in the process.