Avoid Big Word Syndrome

Selecting the right word is important for writers. In fact, aside from using the correct punctuation to frame those words, it is the only thing. This may seem shocking but at the most basic level, all we do as writers is figure out what word comes next. Then we insert punctuation for clarity. The words we choose are what matters most.

A sloppy writer will grab the first word that comes to mind; a diligent writer makes sure it is the right word, while a perfectionist agonizes over every selection. To aid in finding the right words, a dictionary is their constant companion.

When I started writing, I was more often diligent than sloppy. Unfortunately, my diligence soon assumed the wrong focus. I thought using bigger words made my writing better, that sending readers to the dictionary, scratching their heads, was a good thing. This, I reasoned, would surely earn their respect for my command of the English language and my soaring intellect. I was delusional on both counts.

I was writing to impress, not communicate. I fell victim to big word syndrome.

If a big word is the best word, then use it. However, if a smaller word works just as well, grab it, and if shorter fits better, it’s a win for everyone. (I suppose an exception might be high-level academic work and scholarly reviews but only if your goal is to impress others.)

When I read my past work, even from a few years ago, I often shutter at my fascination with big word syndrome. I’m getting better at it, but I’m a work in progress as I strive to improve.

As writers isn’t this the case for all of us? We are a work in progress, determined to get better.

Have you ever struggled with big word syndrome? What aspect of your writing are you striving to improve?

15 thoughts on “Avoid Big Word Syndrome

  1. I love sophisticated words in books. Why is it wrong if we stop reading and open the dictionary, once in a while? Isn’t this how we build vocabulary beyond that used by children? Isn’t a little challenge good for the reader?

    I know what you are saying, Peter. I am trying very hard to use simple, everyday words that seem so prevalent in much of writing today, but, to tell you the truth, I rather use “dauntless” instant of “fearless”, “sagacious” instead of “wise”, and “salubrious” instead of “healthy”. Am I going to be chastised for that?

    • Great question. I think those words are part of your voice as a writer: the qualities that make your work unique.

      In the end, your publisher and editors will decide what they prefer. They may accept or even applaud your word selections, or they may ask you to tweak things a bit.

      I say, stay true to your style, but be willing to edit it when needed.

      (Thanks for being part of the conversation!)

      • Thank you, Peter! Happy to participate.

        You are right! Our writing voice shows our individuality.
        I cannot complain. I had both compliments as well as criticism but still write as my heart tells me,. While editing, I do take into consideration some suggestions.

  2. I disagree. For years I focused on writing for the “common person”. I caught myself when I used big words and substituted ones easier to understand. Now, thirty years later, I read about the dumbing down of America, how people today have a smaller vocabulary than years ago, and I realized I was part of the problem.

    • Although I love Peter’s writing, I am happy I found someone after my own heart! Patricia, I love your guest post. Though nowhere near as accomplished as you are, I have difficulty accepting the simplicity and baseness in most of what I see, especially in -books. Growing up in Greece, I learned that language is art and that you use the right words to create as you use colors to paint. I write non fiction…actually editing at this point my very first book, Sailing to Ithaca. l prefer to write what feels good and says what comes out of my heart in the best manner possible. Though English is my second language, I have read hundreds of books, most of them amazing classics and contemporary ones. Some beta readers keep pushing me for short and to-the-point-sentences and the simplest words possible; few others commend on my interesting and inviting voice. Hoping that I do the best I can and if I touch even few hearts, it would be worth it.
      All best to you and your new book. Congratulations for the continued success of your fist!

    • Thanks for stopping by Patricia and offering a differing perspective.

      As I said to Katina, I think those words are part of your voice as a writer. They used to be part of my voice, too. But I made a decision to change that part of my voice because I felt it would make me more publishable and reach a wider audience.

      I like your blog post, especially the part about it being a balancing act. So true!

      • While I espouse your view point, Patricia, I also understand you, Peter, how you feel and why. You are young and you can influence many in your life with your wisdom so that matters too.

        What I wanted to add is that at this late point in my life, I want to be who I am and not worry if I am liked by the crowds. I am not looking for a long career as an author.

        I want to share my long journey and the lessons I learned, in the hope that even few people will be inspired and encouraged to see what is important and what is not, to be the best they can, and to make a difference in this world.

        When I decided to publish, I asked God to help me finish the book, even for only few people. I came this far. I am hoping, He will take me through the rest of the way and also find ways to bring my words to those who need to read them.

        Blessings and light to both!

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