Friday, October 23, 2009

I swear that I will never talk down to you

Lets get one thing perfectly clear, I'm a man who loves words. I love big words, little words, old words, new words, mundane words and arcane words. Words make up the largest part of my writing tool box, and just like you can never have too many wrenches or sockets or other fiddly little tools, you can never have too many words. Words are useful, powerful things to have. The more you have, the easier it is to get your point across, because every situation has a word that fits it just right. Words can also be dangerous and fickle things. Someone really good with words, like William Blake or Hunter Thompson or Samuel Adams, can do more damage with a handful of words than others could do with a hammer or a rifle. I collect words like other people collect stamps or toys, and I love every one of them. There's even a word for that, it's “logophilia”. Awesome, eh?



Now, you may ask, “Jason, how did you learn all these words?” Simple, I read. Ever since I could sit up on my own and hold a book I've been a reader. I read everything I can get my hands on, from technical bulletins to biographies to histories to books about spaceships and dragons. Hell, I've even got the PopCap game Bookworm on my phone so that if I'm ever at a loss for reading material I can just make up my own. When I was a kid, my house was stuffed with books. My mother, a registered nurse, had whole shelves devoted to medical texts and dictionaries. My dad's shelves were full of histories like The Frontiersman and Pacific War Diary (which is about the ship my grandfather sailed on during WWII) along with various books about architecture and engineering as he was a building contractor. We had no less than four dictionaries in the house, along with the Encyclopedia Britannica.

As I started to read on my own, after growing out of “Where the Wild Things Are” and “The Pokey Little Puppy” and getting into science fiction and horror stuff, I started to run into more and more words I didn't know. These were like treasures that I was discovering, wonderful treasures from far away lands with uses I couldn't imagine. So I would take these treasures to The Font of All Knowledge (my parents) and ask what they meant. If they knew the answer I'd get a good explanation. More often than not however, I would get directed to the dictionary or the encyclopedia. Remember, children, this was before the rise of the home computer and the advent of the internet as our primary tool for disseminating information. So I looked up a lot of words, which increased my vocabulary and put more tools in my tool box. Another way I learned more esoteric words was through gaming. Without Dungeons and Dragons I don't know that I'd ever have heard words like 'melee' or 'dais' or 'plinth' or 'shillelagh'. Gaming literature is full of all kinds of arcane (there's another one I learned from D&D) words, and are a treasure trove for a logophile like me. This is why I'm a big proponent of silver dollar words in gaming literature. When I was writing my Robotech books I always picked one big word to slide it into a manuscript in just the right place, words like 'diaspora', 'hegemony' and 'internecine'. Words like that, used sparingly, can spice up a manuscript and even challenge a reader.

Any writer worth their salt should have a lot of words in their tool box. The right word, or the right use of a word in a setting where you typically wouldn't see it, can make all the difference between a good story and a great story. You ever hear that Cake song "Shadow Stabbing"? It starts with this line: "Adjectives on the typewriter, he moves his words like a prize fighter". That paints an image, doesn't it? That's how a writer should use his words, confidently and with strength and precision. To put it another way, and to quote Mark Twain, "The difference between the right word and the almost right word is like the difference between lightning and a lightning bug."

Let me finish with a little anecdote about words. I was told by another game writer once that I use too many big words and too much jargon in my work. He went on to say that doing so would alienate my readers. It would make them feel dumb because they didn't know what these words meant, and that by making them feel dumb I would make them angry and I'd lose them as readers. He said that he could understand this anger, because he didn't know a lot of these words or bits of jargon, and it was makinghim feel dumb and angry. I countered with the fact that now that we live in the information age, the definition of a word or phrase is rarely more than a Google search away. I suggested that access to search engines and online dictionaries and Wikipedia have made looking up words a lot easier than when I was a kid and learning my words. I also suggested that readers are smarter than he gives them credit for, and that they can usually just figure it out through context clues. "No!" said this other writer. "People shouldn't have to look up words they don't know or use context clues to figure out what you're saying! That's like homework! You're writing a game and people don't want to do homework to play a game!" Let that sink in my friends. Keep in mind that this came from the mouth of a published writer with decades of experience in the industry. He was telling me that I needed to talk down to you, to gamers, to my readership. That you were either too dumb to figure out what an unfamiliar word meant through context clues or too lazy to Google it. I disagree. I think the opposite is true. I think that dumbing things down, using small words and explaining things over and over and over again is insulting to you, the readership. I believe that today's gamers are smart enough and technically savvy enough that if they don't know something they can figure it out or, failing that, a computer is rarely farther away than the next room. So, yeah. As long as I keep writing and as long as you keep reading, I swear that I'll never talk down to you.

5 comments:

Jason H. Richards said...

As I stare at my stack of RPG supplements, I wonder how anyone in that industry could think that homework is anything but a beloved part of the hobby.

Phalanx said...

No kidding. I keep my Jovian Chronicles books not because I've ever actually used them in-game, but because they are a gold mine of inspiration.

Oz RPG said...

People don't want to do homework to play a game? Isn't that what a lot of game prep is? I'll fill out NPC character sheets on my lunch break. If that's not filling out paperwork for the sake of fun, I don't know what is.

Citizen Lazlo said...

and as always I say ... "wow" ...

Mr Nexx said...

I actually have to consciously dumb down language when talking to patrons. Can't imagine trying to do that in writing.