September 14, 2013

Vocabulary plays hide and seek

Dear M,

When my first set of stories were made available for my friends and relatives to read, I (as can be expected) awaited their feedback eagerly. I expected a great many kinds of comments but the one I expected least was, in the words of a friend who lovingly called me up and praised my writing, "You write in such simple language, I loved it. It was so effortless to read and easy to connect with. You do not use too many unnecessarily long words."

Don't tell anyone, but I had thought my writing would be termed intelligent and somehow sophisticated and absolutely undecipherable. Scratch that. I did not think of its sophistication at all. I did not think about simplicity when I wrote. I just wrote the way I knew how to write. But when I heard those comments, I felt very sad. What! My writing is simple enough that anyone would understand? How ridiculous, how disappointing! How utterly terrible that my stories did not contain un-bite-able words that would send people scampering to the dictionary every two minutes! How unimaginable that people would not learn a few kilos of new words from my book.

A long time had to pass before I figured out that there was more to the comment than what I decoded from it. A long time had to pass before I could be proud of the fact that my writing was simple. A long time had to pass before I could understand that even in the simplest writing, profound thoughts can reside, and that when someone terms your writing simple, it is actually a compliment.

Simple does not always mean that you have an underdeveloped vocabulary. Some books take an effort to read because of the vocabulary it is packed with. At places it looks as though the author wanted the thesaurus to be emptied into his book.

Vocabulary development is not about coming up with the most sophisticated-looking word you can find. It is about finding the right word for the situation. Once I wanted to write about a needle hitting a person and breaking his skin and entering his blood stream. I wrote it like that, until my editor gently corrected it to 'pierced'. Whoa, I thought, that is precisely the word I had wanted. If I go over this letter once again, I am sure I would find better words for 'find' or 'simple' or 'think about'. I use these too much. Perhaps a side-effect of not having English as mother tongue.

That's the thing with vocabulary. You know many of these words, but when we require them, they hide from view like children, hoping they would be discovered and used. But we, like bored adults, we stop looking and use the ones that we have at hand. Our writing shines in a duller light, whereas it could be brightened up with the right choice of words. Not an entire thesaurus, but a few of the appropriate, apt words poured in the right measure.

Vocabulary can be built and enhanced by reading, but to bring the evasive words to mind at the right time? It requires writing and writing and writing.


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  1. "You know many of these words, but when we require them, they hide from view like children, hoping they would be discovered and used."...superb lines...Sometimes it happens exactly with me.

  2. finding the right word is daunting task...sir i would really appreciate a post on long or short sentences and use of "comma".

    1. I will definitely try to come up with something. Thank you very much for following.